Feeding India Is Becoming a Difficult Task

At a time when its economy is poised to grow at 8.5 per cent this financial year, and with its granaries overflowing and food stockpiles rotting in the open, India is finding it difficult to feed its hungry millions. Given the unresolved debate over the percentage of population living in hunger, and all out efforts to reduce the burgeoning food subsidy, feeding India remains a distant dream.

In early 2009, when President Pratibha Patil reiterated her government's resolve to bring in a National Food Security Act in a bid to provide every hungry family with 25 kg of foodgrains priced at Rs 3 a kg (or roughly 7.5 US cents), I was very hopeful. After all, at least 63 years after Independence the government finally takes a vow to feed the hungry. But somewhere at the back of my mind, I was skeptical and kept my fingers crossed, knowing that even the international community had failed to keep its promise of pulling out half the world's hungry by the year 2015. On the contrary, the world's population living in hunger is actually growing.

Despite the impressive economic growth, India is home to the world's largest population of hungry and malnourished, With over 250 million people living in hunger and with 47 per cent children below the age of 5 severely malnourished, I don't know how can the world eulogize its growth trajectory when India's record on hunger remains worse than that of nearly 25 sub-Saharan African countries. What is lesser known is that all these years India had deliberately kept the number of hungry low by drawing a fictitious poverty line, which i think is amongst the world's most stringent. No wonder, India is ranked 66th among 88 vulnerable countries in the Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research institute,

If you earn more than Rs 12 (or 33 US Cents) a day in the rural areas, you are above the poverty line. This is much less than what an average Indian family would incur on a pet dog.

For over a year now, numerous permutation and combinations have been drawn and redrawn on the redefining 'below the poverty line' (BPL) population. The Planning Commission first accepted to go by the existing poverty line, which keeps almost 27 per cent of the population in the BPL category. An empowered Group of Ministers designated to prepare the contours of the proposed National Food Security Act had actually endorsed the recommendation. It also suggested lowering of the food entitlement, from the existing 35 kgs per family, to 25 kg, thereby substantially reducing the food subsidy outgo.

To me, this is nothing but an opportunity lost. After all, if the objective is to merely redefine the poverty line, and provide a low food ration entitlement to the needy, it looks to be simply an effort to revamp the existing public distribution system (PDS), which for all practical purposes has failed to deliver food to those who are in dire need. Let us not forget, the abysmally low ranking of India in the Global Hunger Index is despite the PDS, which is supposed to act as a safety net for the vulnerable sections of the society. It caters to 180.4 million families (including 115.2 million 'above the poverty line' families)

In fact, if the PDS had been even partially effective, there is no reason why Punjab and for that matter Kerala, the best performing States in terms of hunger, should be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam. Extending the same PDS or introducing a revamped PDS to meet the objectives of the National Food Security Act is therefore unlikely to make any meaningful difference to the plight of the hungry and malnourished. There is little hope for the hungry if the government goes ahead regardless.

While the empowered Group of Ministers had refused to look beyond PDS, which in my opinion is like packaging old wine in a new but broken bottle, the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Sonia Gandhi, has stepped in. She has sent the draft back, and asked the government to have a re-look. This made the empowered Group of Ministers ask the Planning Commission to re-assign the poverty line and thereby the real number of beneficiaries.

This is a tricky situation. Given that there are at present three different estimates floating around, Planning Commission has picked up the most convenient -- an estimate prepared by Suresh Tendulkar committee -- which pegs poverty at 37.2 per cent. The other two estimates had computed poverty at 50 per cent, and 77 per cent, respectively. In fact, economist Arjun Sengupta, who heads the National Commission on Enterprise in Unorganized Sector, had earlier claimed that 77 per cent of the population (or 836 million people) were able to spend not more than Rs 20 a day (or roughly 48 US cents). To any sensible person, Arjun Sengupta committee report should be taken as the new poverty line. I don't think anyone will dispute that with Rs 20 you cannot buy even two-square meals a day.

If India redraws its poverty line at 77 per cent, which it should, even the global estimates of hunger will have to be significantly revised upwards. If India's poverty estimates are so low, I wonder what is the reality in other developing countries. But perhaps at a time of globalization, it pays to keep the poverty percentage low. Only then, can the world justify the need to push in for more reforms (read privatization) in the name of growth economics.

There are already 22 different schemes/programs existing to tackle hunger and poverty. And yet, the number of absolute hungry have only risen. It is time India looks beyond food entitlements, and makes necessary policy changes to turn agriculture not only sustainable but also economically viable. Food security can only be ensured if the focus is on revitalizing agriculture, and proving more income in the hands of farmers. This is important given that India has over 600 million farmers. It means the government will have to avoid the the recipes that World Bank/IMF impose in the name of poverty alleviation. Free trade too has added to destruction of millions of livelihoods, and unless India retracts from linking its agriculture with the global economy, removing hunger will not be so easy.

I hope Sonia Gandhi stands her ground, and makes the government prepare a food security plan that looks at long-term, short-term and emergency needs. There is no shortage of food in the country, and if India launches a frontal attack on removing hunger, much of the world's hunger problem would be resolved. #