Small and marginal farmers comprise 85% of the land holdings in India. Social protection is a survival tool for the rural poor, who have no easy access to wage labour. India recognised the need for social protection early on and introduced a slew of social protection programmes like the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) provides 100 days of assured labour wages to every rural poor household. The minimum support price serves as a social protection instrument for farmers. But are these schemes reaching their target audience?
That’s where the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is currently assisting the government on plugging leaks in the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS). “Biometric identification of beneficiaries in Kerala and Odisha has already eliminated families who should not fall under the programme. This alone could yield savings running into millions of dollars,” says Hameed Nuru, the WFP’s country director. Under the mid-day meal scheme, the WFP is also assisting Odisha in overcoming the nutrition deficit through iron fortification of rice.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which is working among the rural poor with the Madhya Pradesh government, finds that addressing hunger nutrition is often overlooked. It feels that communities should be made aware of the nutritive value of food available in their natural habitat. “Promoting nutrition-sensitive agriculture through revival of highly nutritive traditional crops such as kodo kutki and other millets can be a good strategy,” says Meera Mishra, country coordinator, IFAD.
Growing local and procuring local eliminate the need to transport food and its carbon footprint. In this context the Madhya Pradesh government’s Samagra database and model of cash transfers deserve special mention. The model is now being used by almost all the departments of the state for various programmes, including a pilot on cash transfers for the PDS to implement the National Food Security Act. Coupled with good governance, cash transfers can eliminate pilferage, which eats into benefits meant for the poor.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO’s) work shows that besides plugging leakages, cash transfers have a multiplier effect on farm outputs and initiating microenterprises. In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, cash transfers have improved access to health, education services and reduced child labour. Social protection is particularly helpful for households as women take charge of food and nutrition, children’s education and wellbeing.
“Programmes like the MGNREGA can transform India’s rural economy through creation of public and private goods such as terracing, irrigation and other infrastructures, besides injecting income into the local economy,” says Shyam Khadka, the FAO’s India representative. Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme is a shining example of how about 50 million people are assisted. Since its introduction 12 years ago, 36 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty. For every Brazilian Real spent, the economy at large gains an estimated 1.87 Brazilian Reals. Brazil has shown how rather than just giving handouts, social protection should focus on sustainable pathways out of poverty and food insecurity.
Ashim Choudhury is communications consultant, Food and Agriculture Organization
The views expressed are personal