Low-cost State-sponsored food schemes are mushrooming across India. Inspired by Tamil Nadu’s Amma Canteens – where meals are sold for as little as ₹5 - Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Telangana and Rajasthan have followed suit and started similar canteens in their states. Madhya Pradesh too is planning to launch a similar subsidised food scheme. The growth of such canteens across India underscores several issues related to the Right to Food.
About 194.6 million people in India go hungry every day, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015. Malnutrition is an understated issue in India, though India is among the top countries where young children are either ‘’stunted’’ or “wasted” due to poor nutrition. More importantly, as India is urbanising rapidly, the number of poor urban labourers flocking to the cities is growing. They simply cannot afford a meal - a nutritious one.
Till food security becomes a reality in a country like India, we may need to pursue with greater intensity various options and models. Three structures that need prioritised strengthening are: the ICDS centres, which cater to the needs of pregnant and nursing mothers and children under the age of six; the mid-day meal scheme, which directly feeds millions of schoolchildren every day; and the public distribution system, which makes available subsistence rations to above and below poverty line families. There are other proven interventions like large-scale food fortification (flour, oil, milk and salt) that are inexpensive and effective and must also be mandated into food standards.
Despite incurring losses, can models like Amma canteens be considered as one of the successful models in the food security arena? But isn’t that the mandate of welfare programmes -- ensuring affordable food reaches the poor, and the State bearing the cost of its Constitutional responsibility?
The State needs to further explore participation from various quarters to ensure Right to Food for all. Can the Corporate Social Responsibility Act, 2013 incorporate new guidelines so that companies too can contribute financially in aiding such food subsidy programmes, as we have seen corporate houses shouldering the burden of anganwadi centres, thereby reducing the burden on the state exchequer?
Hunger and malnutrition are huge challenges. Government programmes and schemes need to be integrated with other food security programmes. The failure of government programmes – where state governments sometimes seem to modify the figures of malnutrition to paint a “growth picture” – only underline the fact that hunger, chronic poverty and malnutrition bucks our understanding.
The Food Security Act, 2013 enshrines us to the right to get proper food and nutrition. If the failure of poverty programmes has left us with194.6 million people still not knowing where to go for the next meal, then integrated measures need to be adopted. Critics might see Amma Canteens as an extension of populist candy to garner votes, but the need to satisfy hunger of a growing malnourished poor has to be enmeshed with multiple developmental approaches.
More financial transparency is needed to bring credibility to such schemes. Nutritional security has got to do with cognitive development and work productivity - the faster all authorities realise this, the sooner it will bring those innumerable smiles.
“Man does not live on bread alone”, and yet, ironically, that is what is urgently needed: bread, idly, roti, dal, rajma, vegetables and khichdi. Such measures can address hunger and malnutrition for the poor majority, with a little more-“nutritional” sense and sensibility.
Cherian Thomas is National Director, World Vision India.
The views expressed are personal