The path to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The way to feed the hungry and impoverished in India also seems to be driven by good intentions.
The poor and hungry have lived in a dark abyss for over 60 years now, waiting endlessly for their daily morsel of grain. India’s new draft Food Security Bill, with its underlying promise of food-for-all, surely provides a ray of hope for the hungry millions. It could be a new beginning, if enacted properly, and could turn the appalling hunger in India into history.
There have been earlier attempts at fighting hunger.
Brazil’s Zero Hunger program launched by President Lula in 2003, for instance, was the result of a year of inputs from various stakeholders, and is still far away from alleviating hunger. It was launched with the objective of providing three square meals a day to an estimated 46 million people living in hunger and extreme poverty.
By 2005, Brazil had invested $12 billion in the Zero Hunger program, although President Lula was not satisfied and later criticized the program for being riddled with mistakes. Drawing inspiration from the Brazilian program, Egypt also launched a $2 billion program for a food insecure population.
There are further lessons to be drawn from Mexico’s Progresa-oportunidades human development program launched in 1997, which took one year to research and roughly two years to plan.
The program serves 4.2 million households, and costs almost $1 billion every year.
Even in the United States, which invests heavily in food stamp program, hunger is on the rise. More than 31.6 million people, or one in every 10 Americans, are either a beneficiary of the food stamp program or takes part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program.
At present, the government of India provides 35 kg of food grains, including wheat and rice, to 65.2 million families classified as living below the poverty line. In other words, India’s Public Distribution Scheme technically caters to 316 million people.
Any program aimed at providing food-for-all on a long-term basis has to look beyond food stamps and public distribution schemes. India must move to a Zero Hunger program by attacking the structural causes of poverty and hunger. Creating adequate employment opportunities and promoting sustainable livelihoods by involving the village communities has to be woven into any long-term food security plan. Better health care facilities, access to safe drinking water and sufficient micro-nutrient intake will ensure that food is properly absorbed. An empty stomach cannot wait. With the passage of time it will inevitably lead to social upheavals, and the repercussions could be still more damaging to society at large.
The point is that in the poor countries agriculture is being sacrificed for the sake of industry, mining and exports, and land acquisitions are divesting Indian farmers of their only form of economic security by forcing them to quit agriculture. The proposed National Food Security Act cannot be a stand-alone activity. It has to be integrated with various other program and policy initiatives to ensure that hunger becomes history.
In a country where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, all efforts must be directed towards strengthening low external input sustainable agricultural practices. There is an urgent need to revitalize the natural resource base, restore groundwater levels, and provide higher incomes to farmers. A monthly take-home income package based on land holdings has to be worked out for farmers.
Global commitments and neo-liberal economic policies should not be allowed to interfere with the food security plan in the poor countries.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements, the Free Trade Agreements and various bilateral trade deals should not be allowed to displace farming communities and play havoc with national food security. Importing food for a country like India is like importing unemployment, thereby increasing the number of hungry.
(By Devinder Sharma, New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst; Dissident Voice)