On the wrong route to tackle hunger

Several years ago, Dr M S Swaminathan and I were speaking at a conference on hunger at Rome. Also speaking at one of the sessions was the Brazilian minister for zero hunger programme, the dream programme of ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After he had listened to us, he sat down with us to know of how India was battling hunger, specially the way India was managing its food self-sufficiency and the massive food procurement programme.

It was therefore so heartening to read a news report saying ‘No hunger in Brazil by 2015.’ This only shows the ability of the Brazilian leadership to learn from others, and draw up a programme to fight hunger based on the central premise: supporting family farms – which currently provide 70 per cent of the food eaten by Brazilians. The entire programme to fight hunger was designed on the basis of what the country required. Ever since Brazil launched the Zero Hunger programme in 2001, it has pulled out 30-40 million people from poverty.

While Brazil promises to remove hunger by 2015, there is no such clarity and promise being doled out under the ambitious National Food Security bill in India. To me it seems that while Brazil’ Zero Hunger was time-bound and aimed at making hunger history, India's food security bill is simply targeted at the 2014 elections, and is for posterity.
Lost opportunity

India’s proposed food security bill therefore is a lost opportunity. Sonia Gandhi did provide a historic opportunity for the National Advisory Council (NAC) to come up with a proposal to fight hunger in such a meaningful way that makes hunger history. But the opportunity was squandered. I would have been keenly looking for a policy programme which could have spelled out how much hunger would go away in the next five years, the next 10 years, the next 15 years and so on. The proposed law could have been easily designed in a manner that aims to remove hunger once for all rather than keep the majority population dependent on food doles for all times to come.

An economically viable and sustainable agriculture should have been at the centre of the food security programme. With nearly 2,500 farmers quitting agriculture every day, and nowhere to go, the scourge of hunger is only going to multiply. The United Nations meanwhile has complimented 38 countries, including Brazil, for beating a UN deadline of 2015 to remove half their hunger. It was in the year 2000 when the UN established the Millennium Development Goals for countries, the first target being to reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half by the year 2015. Among these 38 countries are: Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cuba, Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, Indonesia, Maldives, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Vietnam.

While I agree that 91 per cent reduction in global hunger since 1991-92 has come from the efforts made by just two countries – China and Vietnam, it is significant that some other countries are fast racing to eradicate hunger. Even if these countries have relatively smaller populations (except Indonesia and Bangladesh) hunger is a scourge that blots development everywhere including tiny nations. A hungry nation can never be economically strong howsoever it may try to paint a rosy picture based on statistical jugglery.

The proposed National Food Security bill therefore was an excellent opportunity to plan a time-bound programme – that cuts into several related ministries. Besides agriculture, rural development, science & technology, the law should have also corrected many distortions coming through international trade, industry and land acquisitions. Without bringing such policy changes by transgressing into the domain of some of the related ministries shows that the intention behind the massive food cheap programme is certainly not to make it effective and sustainable in the long term.

Take the case of the dairy sector. It is generally believed that most farmers who have not committed suicide are the ones who are also keeping dairy animals. But under the proposed Indo-European Union Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that is about to be signed, India has agreed to drastically reduce the import duties on the import of milk and dairy products. This will bring in a flood of cheaper imports which the European Union is saddled with. These highly subsidised imports will hit not only the cooperative dairy sector but also render small farmers uneconomical.

Cheaper imports of edible oil in the past two decades have undone what was achieved under the Oilseeds Technology Mission in 1993-94. While India was almost self-sufficient in edible oils producing 97 per cent of the domestic requirement, phased reduction in import tariffs from the bound level of 300 per cent to almost zero per cent has brought in a flood of cheaper imports. Consequently, India imports Rs 56,000 crore of edible oils while subsistence farmers in central India take the fatal route by committing suicide. The more the food we import the more will be the pressure on the food security bill to provide cheaper food.

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