At a time when granaries are overflowing, and stockpiles of food are rotting in the open, India is preparing to bring in a National Food Security Act. Saddled with the world’s largest population of hungry and malnourished, the draft bill certainly provides a ray of hope for the hungry millions.
If enacted properly, it can turn appalling hunger into history. But if the intention is to only repackage old wine in a new but broken bottle, it will turn out to be a historic blunder.
The primary objective of the draft Bill, as being suggested by the empowered Group of Ministers (eGoM), seems to be to simply re-classify the population below the poverty line which is entitled to receive 25 kg (or 35 kg if the eGoM agrees) of grain at Rs 3 per kg. Moreover, by relying once again on a bogus Public Distribution System (PDS) to reach food to the needy, I think we are neither serious nor sincere in pulling the country out of hunger for all time to come.
As the new harvest flows in, the question that needs to be asked is why acute hunger prevails in the villages that actually produce food? How come a large population of the hungry reside in those very areas that constitute the country’s food bowl? I fail to understand why in Punjab, where food rots in the open, almost 10 per cent of the population should go to bed hungry? Why is that Punjab, the best-performing state in terms of addressing hunger, should be ranked
below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam in the Global Hunger Index?
There is something terribly wrong in the way we have looked at hunger all these years. We have failed to realise that any programme aimed at providing food-for-all on a long-term basis has to look beyond food stamps and the PDS. Including the destitute and the homeless in the food distribution channel and by ensuring 35 kg of food entitlement per family (including nutritious millets and pulses) is not enough to remove hunger.
Instead of sending search teams to 22 countries that have food security programmes, the eGoM will do well to look inwards, and will find sustainable answers that can be easily replicated. Ironically, the answer lies in the hunger belt of Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput in western Orissa. Many years ago, I had stumbled on a cluster of villages in the heart of Bolangir district, which had not witnessed hunger for nearly three decades. My colleagues have since then travelled to numerous other villages throughout the country, which have adopted a socially workable ‘sharing and caring’ approach to remove hunger. If these villages can do it, I see no reason why a majority of the six lakh villages cannot become hunger-free.
In Bolangir, or in rural Pune, some villages have built traditional but small foodgrain banks. Those who are poor and jobless find solace in these grain banks. They are provided an adequate quantity of grains on credit, with the promise that they will return it in kind (along with a small portion as interest) at the time of the harvest when they find work. This cycle of ‘sharing and caring’ has built quite a sizeable foodgrain bank in these hunger-free villages. All that is needed is to train women self-help groups and NGOs in other villages, and food security will become the responsibility of the people.
Making villages hunger-free will also limit the dependence on the unreliable PDS and thereby reduce the mounting food subsidy. It has to be backed by policies that ensure that agriculture is not sacrificed for the sake of industry, mining and exports. As Hivre bazaar in central Maharashtra has shown, the answer lies in giving control over jan, jal and jungle to the people.