INDIA’s “growth” story has a dark side. On the one hand, the GDP grew by a satisfying 7.4 per cent in 2009-10 (despite decelerating exports and that perpetual laggard, agriculture, which shuffled along at 2 per cent). Salaries went north and consumer spending followed suit. Infrastructure blossomed.
On the other hand, more than 20 crore Indians remain chronically hungry, a staggering 43 per cent of Indian children suffer from malnutrition and nearly two of every three women are anaemic. Per capita income has gone up 10 per cent but a quarter of Indians continue to live on less than a dollar a day.
If anything is taking the shine out of India’s “growth”, it is what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called our “national shame” – the largest number of hungry people in the world. In national terms, this means a large chunk of our population cannot achieve their potential because they are underfed and undernourished.
The UPA government hopes to address the twin issues of hunger and malnutrition through the National Food Security Act (NFSA), which will make the right to food a legal entitlement. There is general agreement that every last Indian is entitled to a full stomach.
Conceptually, this is unexceptionable and has been welcomed across the board. Then why is the government wrestling with the issue of food entitlements? Why are the Planning Commission, the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the Ministry of Food, Public Distribution and Consumer Affairs locked in battle over who should have the right to food and how much of it? Surely there is enough for all?
Apparently not. In recent years, there has been an increase in the production of wheat, rice and coarse grains, averaging around 218 million tonnes per annum. But after accounting for wastage, the per capita cereal intake requirement of 425 gms recommended by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) is difficult to meet, especially in view of the fact that availability of pulses and other food items which are our main source of nutrients, is far below the minimum required level.
So, although the NAC wants universal coverage under the proposed NFSA, it is being brought to realise that this may not be possible due to limited availability of foodgrains. The government therefore seeks to define who is poor and as such, should be covered under the NFSA. From the plethora of poverty estimates, it has settled on the Tendulkar Committee’s recommendations and accepted that 8.06 crore households in the country qualify as poor. To these, it proposes to give 35 kgs of foodgrains every month.
This is assumed to be half the monthly foodgrain requirement of a family of five. The new thinking is that foodgrains should now be allocated on a per capita rather than per family basis, as the size of the family is believed to have shrunk. Each person would be entitled to 6 kg of foodgrains per month. This works out to an annual per capita allocation of 72 kg of foodgrains per year.
Clearly, considering that a person is expected to consume a little under l kg of foodgrains every two days to remain healthy, in addition to other foodstuffs, the allocations under the proposed NFSA are meant to be strictly supplementary. How this limited food entitlement gels with the NAC’s concept of universal coverage remains to be seen.
There are many policy initiatives aimed at tackling hunger, whether it is the Mid-day Meal Programme or the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and these have had a Tangible Impact. Of course, the other aspect of the hunger debate is that food availability alone cannot ensure access to adequate nutrition. It is only one among many reasons for chronic hunger, just as food insecurity is one of several factors leading to malnutrition. Health, access to drinking water, sanitation, changing patterns of agriculture and social factors have a critical role to play. Experience has shown that with strong political will, keeping all these factors in mind, delivery can be ensured.
What emerges from the above is that agricultural output needs a major boost in order to tackle hunger. The current scenario is not encouraging. The main cereal producing states of Punjab and Haryana have shown a deceleration in agriculture. In the majority of states, population has outstripped agricultural growth.
The government had pinned its hopes on a “second green revolution”, which was to be powered by biotechnology and was the favourite agricultural catchphrase of UPA-I. This, however, has not materialised as genetically modified (GM) seeds have not lived up to their promised potential – rather the reverse. In UPA-II, the term appears to have lost its flavour.
Instead, we hear of the East India Green Revolution, which is to be based on the “China model”- use of hybrid varieties of rice and agrochemical inputs. As has become the norm in every sector of the economy, we look eastwards for inspiration. The consequences of adopting the “China model” are not being considered.
Facts recently released by the Chinese government show that agriculture and not industry is the leading cause of pollution in that country. Over 30 million tonnes of agrochemicals are discharged into its waterways annually, with consequent impact on the environment and human health. At the same time, the intensive system of agriculture has resulted in acute water scarcity in north China.
If China is not the way to go, what then? Is it possible to evolve a purely indigenous model of agriculture that ensures access to food for all? Can the marginal farmers and landless labourers who comprise the bulk of our underfed population be part of the solution rather than the problem? Policymakers are so tuned into the industrial farming mindset that the idea of small-scale farmers producing enough food not only for their own needs but for the market is beyond their grasp. But if we are to meet the hunger challenge, we need to think out of the box.
(The writer is an activist of organic farming and senior journalist. She can be contacted at [email protected])