Food as entitlement: Harsh Mander

Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger by Harsh Mander
Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger by Harsh Mander
Reinventing the discourse around human rights today presents new opportunities to advance the possibilities of justice. An excerpt from Harsh Mander’s just released book Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle against Hunger.
There are many ways that the story of human history can be told. One of these is of the unending struggles of oppressed people — to fight their chains, to free themselves and others from the bondages which have enslaved and crushed them.
Each epoch has fashioned its own ideas around which dreams and struggles for justice have been forged. In recent centuries, these struggles for justice have increasingly been fashioned at least partly around some notions of rights, or moral and legal entitlements. In post-War, postcolonial decades of the second half of the twentieth century, somewhat sterile debates rose around the conflict and hierarchy of rights. Non-Communist liberal democracies prioritized civil and political rights, such as protection against torture and arbitrary arrest and detention, over social and economic rights of food, shelter, health care and education. Communist regimes ensured food, education, health-care and social security for its citizens, but trampled civil and political rights. However, epochal changes wrought the world over after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demolition of the Berlin Wall in the last two decades of the twentieth century have posed new and urgent challenges to the notions of both rights and justice.
Discussions about ending hunger and securing every person’s access to food is increasingly being articulated around some notion of rights, rather than appeals to charity, the goodwill of people, religious organizations or public officials, or even development services or basic needs. It is built around the growing acknowledgement of the equal intrinsic worth of every human being, primarily by virtue of their being human. This leads to a belief that governments have the primary duty to ensure that people have the material resources, freedoms and protection required to be able to live a human life of dignity, security and material levels, considered the entitlement of every human being. Rights are these claims that every human being can make from the government stemming from the essential equal humanity and worth of all people. These rights have moral binding, but some are also legally enforceable in courts of law. In other words, rights are entitlements backed by legal or moral principles.
During much of the twentieth century, poverty, hunger, want and inequality were always with, and around us. Their existence formed an essential element of middle class consciousness. Radical socialist and communist formations fought for power in the name of poor and oppressed people, and when in power governed explicitly for their social and economic rights. Postcolonial States derived legitimacy from claims of redistributive justice. Liberal democratic capitalist governments experimented with Keynesian or welfare state solutions to poverty, basic needs and social security. Whatever States actually did for social and economic justice and for better lives for underprivileged people, there was no doubt that they derive legitimacy substantially from these claims and acts. The lives and struggles of poor people were a staple of popular cinema and literature and found spaces, even if limited, in print and television media.
All this changed dramatically in the last decade of the twentieth century. The notion of ‘good governance’ was influentially fostered by international financial institutions like the World Bank, incorporating globalised free markets, private provisioning of public goods and fiscal austerity, and like the assembly line of consumer goods adopted increasingly by populations across the world. There arose also a global assembly line of ideas and culture. In other words, not only did people across cultures and nations start eating the same burgers and wearing the same branded blue denim jeans; they also began to believe that the same set of economic and public policies would benefit people of all classes and gender across nations. Important among these ideas was that the primary duty of the State was no longer to address poverty, hunger and injustice, and to ensure the security of all citizens. It was instead to create the most effective conditions for globalized trans-national capital to flourish with the least encumbrances and uncertainties, so that investment and consequent economic growth could be best secured. States did not even have to provision public goods like food, education, health care and public transport; even these could be competitively secured through the functioning of markets.
This change is also brought about with the breakdown of Keynesian welfare State and the emergence of Schumpeterian workfare regime, in which welfare was downgraded and workfare become the ruling idea. That is, one can only ask for relief if one is willing and able to ‘work’ in ‘productive’ ways as defined by material society. Crucially, a whole group of people (including the destitute, aged, sick and disabled) become devalued and invisible, because they are deemed to be unproductive, even ‘unemployable’. This also leads to de-prioritizing and in a way de-legitimizing the rights of people to means of dignified existence, independent of their perceived inability to ‘produce’.
The contemporary international regime of human rights was established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly, 1948, which affirmed that the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.
Reinventing the discourse around human rights today presents new opportunities to advance the possibilities of justice, faced by the challenges in our times. This is because people can even less than in the past depend only on appeals to the moral authority and legitimacy of the State and conventional processes of representative democracy to secure the rights of citizens, particularly those who are most marginalized.
Rights already exist, but they are often implicit in the fundamental constitutional rights (especially the rights to life and equality), in the normative framework established by international covenants, or in a more universal moral regime that binds all States and informs its actions. These rights can and have indeed been widely and manifestly violated by State authorities. Yet there seems little recourse to the victims and survivors of these violations in the existing regime. The likelihood of these rights being enforced is greatly dimmed in a world where the success of States is judged by their abilities to attract international capital and accelerate market led growth, rather than to actively build a better life for its disadvantaged citizens, and when they are under enormous pressure by international financial and aid institutions to decelerate State spending. A range of rights such as social and economic rights, perhaps the first of which if the right to food, need now to be elaborated, codified and above all made judiciable.
Excerpted with permissions from Penguin Books India from the book Ash in the Belly: India’s Unfinished Battle Against Hunger by Harsh Mander. Penguin India/ Rs.350.

GLOBAL FOOD WASTE NOT, WANT NOT Feeding the 9 Billion: The tragedy of waste

Feeding the 9 Billion: The tragedy of waste By 2075, the United Nations’ mid-range projection for global population growth predicts that human numbers will peak at about 9.5 billion people. This means that there could be an extra three billion mouths to feed by the end of the century, a period in which substantial changes are anticipated in the wealth, calorific intake and dietary preferences of people in developing countries across the world. Such a projection presents mankind with wide-ranging social, economic, environmental and political issues that need to be addressed today to ensure a sustainable future for all. One key issue is how to produce more food in a world of finite resources. Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands. Read the Global Food report [PDF, 1MB] Related: Half of world’s meals go into the bin Deccan Herald | January 10, 2013 Experts have revealed that half of the food produced in the world is actually being thrown away every year.

India’s hunger level constant for past 15 years

Author(s): Richard Mahapatra, Down to Earth

Date: Oct 11, 2012

Economic growth didn’t result in hunger reduction after 1996, says Global Hunger Index

hungerPhotograph by Nandita ChibberHigh economic growth has not helped India reduce its hunger level, says the new Global Hunger Index (GHI), released on October 11. What’s more, the level of hunger now is the same as it was in 1996. The index, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute, has rated 120 countries. India has been ranked 65th, below Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This is the seventh such report that has been tracking hunger across the world using multiple parameters.

“India has lagged behind in improving its GHI score despite strong economic growth,” says the report. Going by such rankings earlier, India’s hunger level now is the same as it was in 1996. Between 1996 and 2001, there was a slight decrease in hunger level. But the latest score shows that in the past 10 years, the level has stagnated. “The stagnation in GHI score occurred during a period when India’s gross national per capita income almost doubled, rising from about $1,460 to $2,850 (per annum),” the report analyses. Two-thirds of India’s alarming GHI score is owing to the fact that 43.5 per cent of the country’s children are underweight. In this parameter, India scores less than Ethiopia.

In the case of India, the link between economic growth and the expected reduction in hunger got snapped after 1996. Between 1990 and 1996, says the report, India’s hunger level reduction was proportionate to its economic growth. But after this, there have been no impacts of high economic growth on the level of hunger. “The disparity between economic development and progress in the fight against hunger widened,” says the report.

Slow progress in global hunger reduction

At the global level, hunger has reduced marginally in the past two decades. “Progress in reducing the proportion of hungry people in the world has been tragically slow,” observes the report. In 2012 the GHI fell by 26 per cent from the 1990 level. But there are severe regional imbalances in distribution of hunger. South Asia and the Sub-Saharan Africa have the highest levels of hunger. The 22 countries with “alarming” or “extremely alarming” levels of hunger are in these two regions. South Asia reduced its GHI score significantly during 1990 to 1996 but couldn’t maintain the pace. Now, the sub-Saharan region’s hunger level is lower than that of the South Asian region.

“As a result of economic and population growth, wealthier population in the developed and increasingly developing world are juxtaposed with nearly 1 billion food-insecure people and 2 billion people suffering from micro nutrient deficiency,” says the report on growing inequality.

The report comes at a time when food prices are set to touch the 2008-level that triggered food riots across the globe. Food prices went up by 40 per cent in 2007. The food price rise in 2007-08 pushed 130-155 million people into extreme poverty. A recent UN report suggests that this year food prices may reach the 2008 level, triggering panic. The insecurity has led to an unprecedented rush to grab land for future food production.

The GHI report shows that world’s hunger hot spots are the preferred countries for securing lucrative land. “The majority of international land deals till date have occurred in those countries that experience higher levels of hunger and where the population and national incomes depend heavily on agriculture,” says the GHI report. Most of these land parcels were in use for sustenance farming by the world’s poorest farmers in the most food insecure areas. Governments justify these deals to improve their fortunes by allowing industrial farming.

Click here to read the GHI report

India’s enduring problem with malnutrition

By Andrew NorthBBC News, Madhya Pradesh

MukeshMalnutrition usually surfaces after six months if children fail to get enough solid foods

Deshraj reaches out for his mother’s breast as she balances him on her knees, sitting outside her low, mud-walled home.

The little boy cries, but with no strength.

Deshraj is two years old but barely larger than a newborn and crazed by hunger.

His hair is patchy, his eyes are sunken and his legs like twigs – he is so weak he can’t even walk.

But his mother turns him away; she has nothing left to give.

“We can’t get him to eat bread,” she says in an irritated tone, clearly annoyed at being asked questions, and walks away.

Deshraj is one of millions of Indian children suffering severe malnutrition, an enduring problem Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called a “national shame”.

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Sometimes the mothers don’t know how best to look after their children”

Health worker

Yet despite supposedly spending billions of rupees on poverty and food-relief programmes – and during a period of sustained economic growth – the government has made only a dent in the problem.

It is estimated that one in four of the world’s malnourished children is in India, more even than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Weakened by hunger, they are more vulnerable to disease, with tens of thousands dying every year. Millions more will be physically and mentally stunted for life because they don’t get enough to eat in their crucial early years.

‘Hunger belt’

India has fallen in child development rankings, putting it behind poorer countries such as neighbouring Bangladesh or the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to a new study by the Save the Children charity.

So when UK Prime Minister David Cameron hosts a summit this weekend on child malnutrition worldwide, India is one of the countries of greatest concern.

Yet this is hardly a new problem. India has been arguing over what to do about hunger and the poverty that underpins it for years – while its farms produce ever more food.

Public Distribution Store in Markheda villageThe feeding centre in Markheda village is empty apart from a few sacks of emergency food

On paper there is already a multi-billion dollar network in place to look after children like Deshraj.

But too often, corruption and mismanagement mean it doesn’t work.

Deep in the so-called “hunger belt” of central India, Deshraj’s village, Markheda, has a government-subsidised food shop funded by the Public Distribution System (PDS).

It entitles every family living below the official poverty line to 35kg of grain or rice a month.

His extreme case is known too: he has been identified as one of 19 “dangerously malnourished” children in the village, making him eligible for emergency help from the local “nutrition rehabilitation centre” in the nearby town of Shivpuri.

But here it gets even more complicated.

“His family won’t agree to send him,” complains one of the health workers who suddenly arrive in the village while the BBC is there.

It is true that Deshraj’s mother does not appear overly concerned about his condition. Like most people here, she’s illiterate and doesn’t seem to understand many of the questions she is asked before walking away.

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“I can’t remember when we last saw someone from the government here”

Markheda villager

“Sometimes the mothers don’t know how best to look after their children,” says the health worker.

There are other boys and girls in this settlement of about 600 families who appear in better, although far from perfect, health.

Bottom rung

But it’s questionable too how committed the local authorities are to helping remote villages like this.

Markheda’s residents are all tribals, on the bottom rung of India’s complicated social ladder and largely out of sight. No one would find this place by accident, a half-hour drive through scrub and forest from the nearest road.

Villagers say the government PDS store is usually closed. It just happens to be open when the BBC visits, but inside it is empty apart from a few small sacks of emergency food left in one corner.

“I can’t remember when we last saw someone from the government here,” says one villager.

And Om Prakash, the government team leader, admits they came to the village because “we wanted to see what you were doing”.

In another hut, Dineshi and her husband Brijmohan are still mourning their four-year-old son, Kalua, who died a few weeks ago.

BrijmohanBrijmohan’s four-year-old son died due to lack of medical care

“He got sick and stopped eating,” says Brijmohan.

“We’d taken him to the doctor once before but we couldn’t afford to go again and he got weaker and weaker.”

There is no doctor nearby, and they have no transport. The family’s only income is from selling baskets Brijmohan makes from tree saplings.

Blades of light pierce the gloom through holes in the thatched roof, catching their three-month-old son Mukesh as his mother Dineshi rocks him in a small hammock to relieve the thick summer heat.

He is still being breast-fed: the problems for children usually begin after six months, once they should start on solids.

The family gets food from the government PDS store, but sometimes “there’s not enough, or it’s bad quality”.

“We’re often hungry,” Brijmohan says.

But there are plenty of people committed to tackling the problem.

At the nutrition rehabilitation centre in Shivpuri, Dr Raj Kumar is checking on a two-year-old girl called Anjini, brought in about a week earlier weighing just 3.8kg.

Many children are born heavier than that. Anjini has also picked up TB and pneumonia – common conditions among malnourished kids.

She is still in a dire state, barely able to lift her stick-thin limbs, but with constant feeding at the centre she has put on weight.

Dr Kumar says she will survive, but “she will be stunted for life”.

‘Left to rot’

Under pressure, India’s ruling coalition introduced a Food Security bill last year, supposed to enshrine the right to food for all. But no one is betting on when it will be passed amid the country’s current political deadlock.

And some critics say there is still not enough political will to tackle the hunger problem.

Other more free-market oriented voices argue that the whole approach of subsidising food and providing guarantees is wrong, simply creating a dependency culture.

Grain warehouse in Madhya Pradesh India has had yet another record harvest

What is really needed, suggests Arti Tivari from the nutrition centre, is for existing programmes to be “implemented properly and for people to do their jobs properly” – a polite way of saying that graft and corruption still infect the system.

It is a simple fact that no Indian child needs to go hungry.

A short drive from the nutrition centre is a massive grain warehouse, sacks of wheat piled nearly to the ceiling – part of a network of government food stores across the country.

For years now, India has been producing more food than it needs. Yet every year large quantities simply rot in these warehouses.

The situation is much better than a decade ago, insists government minister Sachin Pilot, whose portfolio is officially telecoms but who has become closely involved in food policy.

But he admits “it’s unacceptable having so many children with pot bellies and stick legs”.

India still has a very young population, and politicians often talk of this future “demographic dividend”.

But there will not be much of a dividend if so many Indian children continue to be held back and stunted in their first years of life.

A hungry nation exports food. It can happen only in a democracy

Devender Sharma

At a time when the total food stocks are likely to swell to a record 75 million tonnes by June 1, out of which nearly 30 million tonnes of the stocks will be piled up in the open for lack of storage space, the demand for allowing exports is already growing. Ministry of Commerce has already started an exercise to know how much quantity of wheat can be allowed for exports.

It is a strange paradox of plenty. While on the one hand India is overladen with mounting food stocks, on the other nearly 320 million people go to bed hungry. The number of hungry and malnourished in India almost equals the entire population of America. When it comes to malnutrition, several studies have pointed out that nearly 50 per cent of children are malnourished. India fares worst than even sub-Saharan Africa. According to the 2011 Global Hunger Index India ranks 67 among 81 countries, sliding below Rwanda.
With the per capita availability of foodgrains – including cereals and pulses – sliding to 441 grams per day in 2010, from a high of 480 grams in 1991 when the economic reforms began, it is quite evident that the extent of hunger is growing. Although an impression is being given that as incomes are seeing a rising trend, more people have shifted from cereals to nutritious foods like eggs, meat and fruits. This is however not correct. According to a 2010 report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the consumption of cereals as well as nutritious foods like fruits, milk and eggs too is falling in urban and rural areas.
Continuously rising food inflation over the past several years has certainly widened the gap between the haves and have nots. Experts agree that for a large section of the population, buying two square meals a day is now becoming more difficult. In other words, hunger is becoming more acute. More and more people are going to bed hungry. I therefore don’t understand the logic of exporting food at a time when millions are living in hunger.
The mounting food surplus is essentially because the poor and needy are unable to buy foodgrains even at below the poverty line prices. Ironically, while the poor live in hunger, India is contemplating exports. In 2011-12, with India’s rice exports touching 7 million tonnes, it has emerged as the biggest exporter of rice in the world. Opening up the export of wheat (it is banned at present) India will certainly join the ranks of the major food exporters, and in the process earn some foreign exchange. But the bigger question remains as to who will feed the hungry living within the country?
There can be nothing more criminal for any hungry nation to export its staple food. It is the primary responsibility of the government, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, to ensure that every citizen is well-fed. Unfortunately what is not being realised is the declining fall in per capita availability of foodgrains matches the availability at the time of Bengal famine in 1943. Isn’t it sad that even after 70 years of Bengal famine, we still live in the shadow of hunger and starvation? How can any sensible nation therefore justify food exports?
Food management essentially means distributing the available foodgrains among the poor and hungry. Export of staple foods therefore must be immediately stopped, and all out efforts have to be made to take the foodgrains to the doors of the hungry millions. This is the primary responsibility of every government. #

Addressing India’s hunger gap


The word ‘hunger’ does not appear in the 12th Plan Approach Paper even once, whereas according to the latest Global Hunger Index Report, India continues to be in the category of those nations where hunger is ‘alarming’. What is worse, India is one of the three countries where the hunger index between 1996 and 2011 has gone up from 22.9 to 23.7, while 78 out of the 81 developing countries studied, including Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Kenya, Nigeria, Myanmar, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Malawi, have all succeeded in improving their scores.

According to the central government’s Economic Survey, foodgrain production in India has gone down from 208 kg per annum per capita in 1996-97 to 186 kg in 2009-10, a decline of 11%. From the reduced production, India has been exporting on average 7 million tonnes of cereals per annum, causing availability to decline further by 15% from 510 gm per day per capita in 1991 to 436 gm in 2008.

File photo of a poor family, Indranil Bhoumik Mint
Ironically, despite falling per capita foodgrain production in the period 1991-2010, procurement of cereals on government account has gone up, suggesting a decline in poor people’s consumption and their purchasing power. This may have happened because of structural imbalances (high minimum support price or MSP, rising capital intensity, lack of land reforms, failure of poverty alleviation programmes, no new technological breakthrough in agriculture, etc.) created in the economy, as well as due to production problems in less endowed regions (erratic rainfall, soil erosion and water run-off, lack of access to credit and markets, poor communications) which led to the dangerous situation of huge surpluses in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns since 2008 coupled with widespread hunger. Another factor escalating hunger is spiralling food prices, despite (or perhaps because of) rotting food stocks in government godowns.
The policy approach to agriculture since the 1990s has been to secure increased production through subsidies on inputs such as power, water and fertilizer, and by increasing the MSP rather than through building new capital assets in irrigation, power and rural infrastructure in less endowed regions. This has shifted the production base from low-cost regions to high-cost ones, causing an increase in the cost of production, regional imbalance, and an increase in the burden of storage and transport of foodgrains.

The equity, efficiency, and sustainability of the current approach are questionable. Subsidies do not improve income distribution or the demand for labour. The boost in output from subsidy-stimulated use of fertilizer, pesticides and water has the potential to damage aquifers and soils – an environmentally unsustainable approach that may partly explain the rising costs and slowing growth and productivity in agriculture, notably in Punjab and Haryana. Instead of promoting low-cost options that have a higher capital-output ratio, present policies have resulted in excessive use of capital on the farms.

Major food related programmes, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) are plagued by corruption, leakages, errors in selection, procedural delays, poor allocations and little accountability. They also tend to discriminate against and exclude those who most need them, by social barriers of gender, age, caste, and disability; and state hostility to poor urban migrants, street and slum residents, dispersed hamlets, and unorganised workers such as hawkers. In Rangpur Pahadi, a slum area just a few kilometres away from Vasant Kunj in Delhi, people living since 1980 have not been given a voter ID card or a ration card. Thus their very existence is denied by the Delhi government!

The practice of bogus reporting is so widely prevalent in all the states, presumably with the connivance of senior officers, that the overall percentage of malnourished children under three years of age, according to central government data, is 8%, with only 1% children severely malnourished, as against 46% reported by National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), with 17% being severely malnourished. Field officials are thus able to escape from any sense of accountability for reducing malnutrition and hunger.

A recent evaluation of ICDS in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) showed that 63% of food and funds are misappropriated. In place of cooked food as directed by the Supreme Court, manufactured ready-to-eat food with only 100 calories is given to children, as against the norm of 300 calories.

More than half of the poor either have no card or have been given above poverty line cards, and are thus excluded from the below poverty line (BPL) benefits. These must presumably be the most poor tribal groups, women-headed households and people living in remote hamlets where administration does not reach. Thus, the people most deserving of government help are deprived of such assistance. On the other hand, almost 60% of the BPL or Antyodaya cards have been given to households belonging to the non-poor category. It is doubtful that the current Socio-Economic Caste Census will be able to weed out these errors of exclusion and inclusion.

The food ministry should have a greater sense of ownership of PDS and improve its oversight mechanisms. For instance, it should start an annual impact study of the PDS, especially in the poorer states. It is willing to spend Rs. 60,000 crore on the programme but not willing to spend even Rs. 60 lakh on monitoring and evaluation of the programme. That means spending approximately one rupee out of every one lakh rupees on monitoring. But the ministry has not conducted a single multi-disciplinary third-party objective evaluation of PDS in the last eight years.

Further, the poorest 150 districts (which will cover most of the tribal majority areas in central India) should have universal PDS. In no case should export be permitted. If basmati is to be exported, equal amount of ordinary rice must be imported.

Large-scale substitution of PDS by direct cash transfers (DCT) is not feasible, as foodgrains purchased from the farmers through MSP mechanism need an outlet for distribution. Besides, DCT needs a good banking structure, a functional registration system and widespread use of debit cards. At best, it could be tried on a pilot basis in a few poor localities of metropolitan cities.

India requires a significant increase of targeted investments in nutrition programmes, clinics, disease control, irrigation, rural electrification, rural roads, and sanitation, accompanied by systemic reforms that will overhaul the present system of service delivery, including issues of control and oversight. This in turn requires improving the governance, productivity and accountability of government machinery.

N.C. Saxena is a member of the National Advisory Council. He has worked as Secretary, Planning Commission (1999-2002) and Secretary, Rural Development (1997-99).

Common Wealth or Common Hunger–Common_Wealth_or_Common_Hunger(2).pdf

India, host to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, has led the largest food and
nutrition security programmes, such as the Integrated Child Development
Services (which reaches over 50 million children), the Midday Meal Scheme
and the Public Distribution System, although it still remains home to the
highest number of malnourished children.
Globally, more than 3 million children die every year from undernutritionrelated causes.
An estimated one-third of children under five years old in the developing world
are stunted – that’s 195 million children – and 129 million are underweight.
The critical period, when malnutrition can have the most irrevocable impact, is
during the 33 months from conception to a child’s second birthday – the first
1,000 days.
After two years of age, it is much harder to reverse the effects of chronic
malnutrition, particularly its impact on the development of the brain.
Thirty per cent of the world’s population lives in the 54 diverse countries
that make up the Commonwealth – and at least 64% of the world’s
underweight children.
Nearly half of all under-fives in India are undernourished, almost 7 million of
them with severe acute malnutrition.
Bangladesh and Pakistan have high rates of malnourished children – 41% and
31% respectively.
Of the African Commonwealth countries, Sierra Leone (21%) and Nigeria (23%)
have the highest proportions of malnourished children, Nigeria having the highest
actual number, with more than 5.75 million.

To the hungry, god is bread

M. S. SWAMINATHAN, Opinion: Lead, October 1, 2011

The National Food Security Bill, 2011, designed to make access to food a legal right, is the last chance to convert Gandhiji’s vision of a hunger-free India into reality.

What Mahatma Gandhi said of the role of food in a human being’s life in a 1946 speech at Noakhali, now in Bangladesh, remains the most powerful expression of the importance of making access to food a basic human right. Gandhiji also wanted that the pathway to ending hunger should involve opportunities for everyone to earn their daily bread, since the process of ending hunger should not lead to the erosion of human dignity.

Unfortunately, this message was forgotten after Independence, and government departments started referring to those being provided any form of social support as “beneficiaries.” The “beneficiary” tag is also being applied to the women and men who toil for eight hours under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Sixty-five years after Gandhiji’s Noakhali speech, India is still home to the largest number of under nourished and malnourished children, women and men in any country. The number of people going to bed partially hungry now is more than the entire population of India in 1947.

Recent articles by P. Sainath in The Hindu (September 26 and 27, 2011) brought out vividly the extent of deprivation and destitution prevalent in rural India. Rural deprivation and agrarian distress lead to the growth of urban slums and suffering. The Planning Commission’s submission before the Supreme Court on the amount of money needed per day per person in urban and rural India to meet needs in the areas of nutrition, education and health care (Rs.35 a day in urban India, and Rs.26 in rural India) showed how divorced this important body has become from real life.

At least there is a ray of hope in the draft National Food Security Bill, 2011 put on the website of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, now under the charge of the humanist, Professor K.V. Thomas. This draft will go through a Select Committee of Parliament. I hope that the final version — designed to make access to food a legal right rather than remaining a token of political patronage — will help erase India’s image as the land of the malnourished.

The stated aim of the draft Bill is “to provide for food and nutritional security, in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices, for people to live a life with dignity.” To realise this, we must ensure that every child, woman and man has physical, economic and social (in gender terms) access to a balanced diet (that is, the needed calories and protein), micronutrients (iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12 and so on), as well as clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care.

A life cycle approach to food security will imply attention to the nutritional needs of a human being from conception to cremation. The most vulnerable but neglected segment is the first 1,000 days in a child’s life — the period from conception to the age of two, when much of the brain development takes place.

Obviously the child during this period can be reached only through the mother. Therefore, the life cycle approach to food security starts with pregnant women. The high incidence of children with low birth weight (less than 2.5 kg) is the result of maternal and foetal undernutrition. Such children suffer from handicaps in later life, including impaired cognitive ability. Denying a child even at birth an opportunity for the full expression of its innate genetic potential for physical and mental development is the cruellest form of inequity. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) will have to be redesigned and implemented in two time frames (0-2 and three to six years).

From the legal rights viewpoint, the draft Bill addresses the issue of economic access to food. The other two components of food security — namely, availability of food, which is a function of production, and absorption of food in the body, which is a function of clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care — cannot easily be made legal entitlements. To make food-for-all a legal right, it is necessary to adopt a Universal Public Distribution System (PDS) with common but differentiated entitlements with reference to the cost and quantity of foodgrain. The draft Bill adopts the nomenclature suggested by the National Advisory Council (NAC) and divides the population into priority, that is, those who need adequate social support, and general, that is, those who can afford to pay a higher price for foodgrain. The initial prices proposed are Rs.3, 2 and 1 a kg for rice, wheat and millet respectively for the priority group, and 50 per cent of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for the general group. In a Universal PDS system, both self-selection and well-defined exclusion criteria operated by elected local bodies will help eliminate those who are not in need of social support for their daily bread. In fact, it is the general group that should support financially the provision of highly subsidised food to the economically and socially underprivileged sections. In the case of the well-to-do, the aim of Universal PDS should be to ensure physical access to food.

The widening of the food basket by including a range of nutri-cereals (normally referred to as “coarse cereals”), along with wheat and rice is an important feature of the Food Security Bill. Nutri-cereals such as bajra, ragi, jowar, maize, constitute “health foods,” and their inclusion in the PDS, along with wheat and rice, will encourage their production by farmers. Nutri-cereals are usually cultivated in rainfed areas and are more climate-resilient. Hence, in an era of climate change, they will play an increasingly important role in human nutrition security. During 2010-11, India’s farmers produced 86 million tonnes of wheat, 95 million tonnes of rice and 42 million tonnes of nutri-cereals. The production of nutri-cereals, grown in dry farming areas, will go up if procurement and consumption go up. Thus, the addition of these foodgrain will help strengthen foodgrain availability and nutrition security.

The other components of the Bill that do not involve legal commitments, refer to agricultural production, procurement and safe storage of grain, clean drinking water and sanitation. The temptation to provide cash instead of grain to the ‘priority’ group should be avoided. Currency notes can be printed, but grain can be produced only by farmers, who constitute nearly two-thirds of India’s population. Giving cash will reduce interest in procurement and safe storage. This in turn will affect production. The “crop holiday” declared by farmers in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh is a wake-up call.

A committee set up by the Government of Andhra Pradesh and chaired by Dr. Mohan Kanda, pointed to the following factors behind the decision of a large number of farm families not to grow rice during this kharif season. First, the MSP on offer does not cover the cost of production; the MSP fixed by the Government of India was Rs.1,080 a quintal for common varieties, while the cost of production was Rs.1,270. Second, procurement is sluggish since it is largely being done by rice mills. Third, the late release of canal water, non-availability of credit and other essential inputs, and delayed settlement of crop insurance dues, are affecting the morale and level of interest of farm families. Thus, farmers are facing serious economic, ecological and farm management difficulties. The government should consider adopting as a general policy the formula suggested by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF), that MSP should be C2 plus 50 per cent (total cost of production plus 50 per cent).

Finally, the Bill provides for the creation of Food Security Commissions at the State and Central levels. The two essential ingredients of implementing the legal right to food are political will and farmers’ skill. Hence, State-level Food Security Commissions should be chaired by farmers with an outstanding record of successful farming. They will then help ensure adequate food supply to feed the PDS. At the national level, the composition proposed by the NCF in its final report submitted in October 2006 will help ensure adequate political will and oversight. The suggestion was to set up a National Food Security and Sovereignty Board at the Central level, with the Prime Minister chairing it. The other members could be the Union Ministers concerned, political party leaders in Parliament, a few Chief Ministers of grain-surplus and grain-deficit States, and leading farmers and experts.

Unless we develop and introduce methods to ensure effective political and farmer participation in implementing the Food Security Bill, we will not be able to overcome the problems faced by the PDS in some places arising from corruption in the distribution of entitlements.

The National Food Security Bill, 2011, provides the last chance to launch a frontal attack on poverty-induced hunger and to realise Mahatma Gandhi’s desire that the God of Bread should be present in every home and hut in India. We should not miss this opportunity.

(M.S. Swaminathan is Chairman, MSSRF, and Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha.)


When it has become the Mantra of Globalisation Privatisation Liberisation then to speak for the state trading both in retail and whole sale of food (which has been put aside deliberately) will sound like mad. We have plenty of food but the prices are high and why there is no price control? The wheat was allowed to rot inspite of Supreme Court’s advice to distribute them among the poor. What kind of Demand and supply theory is operating at the cost of people’s livelihood. How can the Govt allow to export of food grains , vegetables for few dollar keeping the people of our country hungry! The prices are rising every day and the purchasing power of the people reducing day by day. We are under the mercy of the market forces. There is local proverb in Gujarat meaning when the ruler becomes business man then the people become beggar. The first step is to control the price hike of all essential commodities and the state trading both in retail and whole sale be introduced with out delay
from:  Dwarika Nath Rath
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 00:53 IST 

A very nice article but makes an implicit assumption that our PDS are run by people who really care about people, poor in particular. Most of the grains available for PDS is sold through black market. I think, the system adopted in France is much better. In France, the people with lesser income are provided assistance for their accommodation and supporting their family. However, these assistance is directly paid to their respective bank accounts and/or their landlord. The department gets the income details from the Income tax department. The only time the people have to visit this department is when there is a change in family status or when he registering for the first time. This way, the people can opt for quality food from the shop of their choice. This is also economical to the GoI, since it can manage a lesser workforce.
from:  Sivasathivel Kandasamy
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 02:28 IST 

Not to say a brillant article by the proponent of Green revolution in India.what i would like to add over here is the structural aspect of the problem of Food security.The first and foremost is the defective preparation of BPL list.In many States, entire communities have been left out, and almost everywhere, there are enormous exclusion errors.For targeted PDS it is very important to have right group with you even if you are going for near universal PDS.Second is the diversion of land for nonagricultural purposes and inadequate irrigation facility to the avialable cultivable land which affects the overall productivity of the land severely.Thirdly the average size of land holdings is very small and is subject to fragmentation due to land ceiling acts. Such small holdings are often over-manned, resulting in disguised unemployment and low productivity of labour.The easily visible problem is the lack of Modern agrcltrl practices and what we need is a cmprhsve agr policy & FSA
from:  Amandeep
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 03:32 IST 

This is a very insightful analysis of the food security bill. However, there are a couple of issues missing. First, while equitable access to food is a desirable goal, it’s also important to define what is food (versus fuel) and how much of it should be made accessible to whom. The other issue I think quite complex and possibly should be another topic of an essay is, what is the opportunity cost of food versus other perceived needs. We have seen how people prefer cell phones and TVs to access to clean toilets and safe drinking water. There needs to be a nationwide awareness campaign about what is really necessary in life including food and nutrition, and their appropriate prices. There is hope about the National Food Security Bill 2011 as MS Swaminathan writes here.
from:  Arin Basu
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 04:24 IST 

Time and again, it has been shown that any “hand-out culture” distorts production, distribution, consumption and national economics, divides society, lowers self-belief, harms self-reliance, diminishes self-respect, etc. While there may be an emergency need to safeguard citizens from suffering and even death from malnutrition and starvation, the planning aims ought to remain focused on the basics – on the demand side: enabling citizens to be able to engage in economic activities to “earn a decent wage and generally to fend for themselves”, and on the supply side: to increase production, streamline efficient distribution, eradicate black-marketing/adulteration, etc. On educational front the State must set nutritional standards of healthy diets, restrict commercial exploitation by promoting fads/junk foods. Long-term, paternalistic, charity leads to dependence, while laissez faire philosophy in economics smacks of indifference, even callousness. Public participation & commitment a must.
from:  Mahapatra
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 05:44 IST 

Very important and relevant comments. But will the present leadership dreaming of making India a superpower worry about this? No where in the world will you see the rich and the ‘well offs’ so callous. After all this is the only country where Laxmi is worshipped!
from:  P M Vishwanath
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 05:51 IST 

Swaminathan’s article is a beautiful piece which is actually a guide for action.Bread must but with dignity,i hope politician and bureaucracy are listening. They have not forgotten Gandhi but trying to remember him only as a statue instead of speaking Mahatma.
from:  Sukhinder Singh Dhaliwal
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 08:33 IST 

This is the last trial of our government to secure the very basic pillar of food security. Earlier the planning commission’s report has ridiculed the concept of welfare if the food security bill get passed it should be make ensure to distribute the god of bread under the fairer PDS SYSTEM.we are very optimistic towards the bill.
from:  Prinki rawat
Posted on: Oct 1, 2011 at 08:38 IST 

Planning Commission ropes in McDonald’s to eradicate poverty

New Delhi. Heralding a new era in public-private partnership, Planning Commission has decided to partner with fast-food restaurant chain McDonald’s in an attempt to remove poverty from India. McDonalds will soon give employment to a poor Indian and pay him one McAloo Tikki™ in kind, which costs at least 20 rupees even during Happy Hours, thus meeting the threshold set by the Planning Commission to identify urban poor.

“Since India is growing at a rate of at least 9 percent, we are hopeful of at least one McDonald’s outlet in each urban Indian city soon,” Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission said after undertaking some complex mathematical calculations, “Clearly McDonald’s would need more employees and we thought it was a perfect opportunity for us to join hands.”
If a person alive in India can afford this Tikki, and only this Tikki and nothing else for the whole day, he is not poor.
As per the agreement between the government and the fast-food restaurant chain, McDonald’s will be given a list people living below poverty line in the vicinity of an outlet, and the restaurant will then employ them gainfully for a salary of one McAloo Tikki™ a day. Since the market price of one such Tikki is at least 20 rupees, the employee would thus no longer remain poor in the eyes of the government.
Sources at McDonald’s confirmed the partnership and expressed confidence of employing all such urban poor at their outlets.
“Anyone not earning even 20 rupees a day is surely quite hungry. We can easily give such a person a job of cleaning the leftovers,” a McDonald’s official said, “We get a lot of urban rich at our outlets who order more than they can eat.”
The official clarified that US based McDonald’s would never get into such an arrangement with the US government as the poverty threshold in US was at least 30 US Dollars per day and non-cash benefits were not counted as income while measuring poverty.
“But India is not US; even the government here has clarified it many times recently,” the official pointed out.
McDonald’s could launch this employment scheme at their Colaba outlet in Mumbai next weekAn intensive manhunt to find a person earning below 20 rupees per day and alive in the area has been launched by the CBI for this purpose. No success was reported till reports last came in.

But the government has dismissed such issues as teething problems and hopes to kick off the partnership in other cities soon. Post this arrangement, government is hopeful of bringing down the number of urban poor to levels matched by those in developed countries, thus paving the way for India to become an economic superpower.


Producing Under nutrition-talk by Dr. Veena Shatrugna on 18th June

he  nutritional  status  of  the  poor  in  India maybe  described  as  alarming.

Most  of  the  indicators  of  nutrition  status  such  as  adult weights,  heights  BMI,  percentage  of children who  are  severely malnourished, mean  birth weights,  infant mortality  rates,  dietary intakes and unacknowledged starvation deaths confirm this  fact.  Hunger  is as widespread as  it is invisible to the scientific eye.  The question that must be asked is how did India get into this trap of under nutrition with such serious consequences?

Chronic hunger as it exists in India can be largely traced to the rapid scientific advances in the area of food and nutrition analysis, and classification. In addition, from 1940s, the dietary requirements of populations was laid out in terms of calories, with the assumption that foods which are culturally and regionally appropriate such as rice, eggs, milk, fowl, pulses, fish, greens, etc. would be consumed in quantities  which  would  provide  calories  and  all  the  other  nutrients.    Nutrition  research  in  the  50s  and  60s,  though  brilliantly innovative and deeply committed to the welfare of Indians, simplified the science of food further, with indices and correction factors, using concepts like consumption units, biological value of proteins, RDA based on calories, calorie needs of workers, vegetable sources of proteins etc., which then became subjects for scientific research and fed into nutritional policy. Over a short period, these concepts were recast and deployed in administrative initiatives that systematically transformed the diets of the poor in India to plain cereals as the major source, or perhaps the only source of calories, devoid of any other nutrient. The consequences of this cereal overload and nutritional depletion have been  far reaching, and are responsible  for a  large measure of  the profile of  ill health, and the epidemic of chronic diseases in India.

This presentation  is an attempt  to  trace  the steps  in scientific and administrative  thinking and policy that  led to  the nutritional and health impasse the people of this country are in.

The speaker is Dr. Veena Shatrugna who has spent 34 years at the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, doing research on the nutrition questions as they impact women and children in India.  She has also worked in the area of women’s health, and has authored “Savaa laksha Sandhehalu”, a self%help book for women in Telugu with a women’s collective called Stree Shakti Sangathana. She has also written “Taking charge  of  our Bodies”  in English with  the  same  group  of women.  She  is  a member  of Anveshi,  a Women’s  studies  organisation  based  in  Hyderabad.