During my fieldwork in Tonk district of Rajasthan, a Dalit family once narrated a ‘miracle’ to me. In 2002, they faced a drought as bad as the chhappani akaal of 1900-02. But at the end of 2002, the Dalit family was pleasantly surprised: they still had some foodgrain left. This, the family members said, was a result of the good relief work done by the Ashok Gehlot government. Similar proactive State action can be seen in Chhattisgarh too: the Raman Singh government has ensured that 35 kg of foodgrain (at R3 per kg for Below Poverty Line households) reaches the targeted families. These instances of positive State intervention were successful due to strong political will, competent administrative action, decentralised operation and the involvement of the local communities in the distribution. Those drafting the National Food Security Act (NFSA) must draw lessons from these examples.
The National Advisory Council (NAC) wants a minimum amount of foodgrain for all households (BPL and Above Poverty Line) at subsidised but differential rates. The present levels of malnutrition, hunger and starvation deaths need urgent measures. Therefore, setting of a timeline for the implementation (a year in 25 per cent of the worst-affected blocks) in the country is welcome. However, these are minimalist measures, given that no district in the country can boast of eradication of hunger with malnutrition rates ranging from 10-80 per cent.
The NFSA must state the multi-pronged measures necessary for a comprehensive long-term sustained food and nutritional security. A minimum quantum of foodgrain for all at subsidised prices must be accompanied by three provisos: first, progressive increase must be made in the quantum of subsidised food to all until full nutritional requirements are met, with rules stipulated in the Act that allow for incremental changes. Second, it must state the mechanisms of implementation, especially to ensure food security for the most-vulnerable regions and population groups, including building of self-reliance so that the need for subsidised food supply is reduced. Third, it must state mechanisms of redressal in case of non-implementation and the processes of accountability.
However, implementing the NFSA is going to be difficult, given the supply chain issues such as corruption and the fact that the poorest cannot purchase food for a fortnight at one go, even at subsidised rates. Increase in costs due to transportation and losses in storage are the two other limitations of the existing the public distribution system on the country.
The Right to Food campaign has proposed a system of decentralised procurement, giving benefit of the minimum support price to farmers in all parts of the country. Local ecologically appropriate grains including coarse grains, with local distribution through panchayats has obvious advantages: nutritional value and more assured production even during dry spells.
Given the circumstances, many will recognise that there has been a steep decline in the culture of sharing and this has affected pro-poor interventions. In this case, the issue is compounded by the lack of recognition of the problem of hunger. States deny having this problem, except those like Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand where the situation is visible. While the state governments cite their Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) data (with anganwadi workers told by supervisors not to report high levels), the health functionaries have also stopped recognising the problem.
In some settings this could be a sign of economic growth. But in reality, this is a sign of the increasing alienation of the economically better-off people from the poorest. When the National Family Health Survey and National Sample Survey show that about 50 per cent of children and 40 per cent households don’t get enough calories and proteins, and that 17 per cent of children are severely malnourished, the ICDS shows only 1 per cent.
There is also a high level of ‘invisible’ hunger among the poor who, habituated to poor diets, perceive it as normal. Starvation deaths are the worst and the least common manifestation of hunger. Hunger is thus perceived as a problem of only a few poor households and, therefore, no community anger builds up on the issue.
With neither State functionaries nor communities recognising the problem, where will the motivation to implement the NFSA come from? One prerequisite in the decentralised implementation, therefore, should be a system of local-level nutritional surveillance. The data on local food deficits and malnutrition may activate the community and local programme implementation. Proactive sensitisation of government functionaries, panchayat members, traders’ associations and corporate houses espousing social responsibility that every human being has the right to food is needed.
Therefore, any government serious about food security cannot be satisfied merely by enacting a law. Beyond the important step of legislation, its contribution would have to be a loud-and-clear expression of political will to implement it in spirit. The moral élan of Sonia Gandhi and the executive power of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could add the necessary steam required to make this engine move. They must express the importance of provisions of the NFSA in ensuring dignity, not only of those who have to suffer the indignity of hunger, but also of those who live with large-scale hunger and malnutrition around us.
( Ritu Priya is Professor, Centre for Social Medicine & Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University. )
*The views expressed by the author are personal.