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Food security bill: an opportunity lost

punjab Updated: Jun 28, 2013 12:20 IST
Devinder Sharma
Devinder Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Several years ago, Dr MS Swaminathan ('Father of the Green Revolution') and I spoke at a conference on hunger in Rome (Italy). Among the other speakers was the Brazilian minister for the Zero Hunger Programme, the dream project of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. After he had listened to us, he sat down to know from us how India was battling hunger, especially the way India was managing its food self-sufficiency and the massive food procurement programme.

It was, therefore, so heartening to read a news report, 'No hunger in Brazil by 2015'. This only shows the ability of the Brazilian leadership to learn from others and draw up a programme to fight hunger, based on the central premise: supporting family farms - which currently provide 70% of the food eaten by Brazilians. The entire programme to fight hunger was designed on the basis of what the country required.

Ever since Brazil launched the Zero Hunger Programme in 2001, it has pulled out 30-40 million people from poverty. While Brazil promises to remove hunger by 2015, there is no such clarity and promise being doled out under the ambitious national food security bill in India. To me, it seems that while Brazil's programme was time-bound and aimed at making hunger history, India's food security bill is simply targeted at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and is meant for posterity.

Scourge of hunger

India's proposed food security bill, therefore, is an opportunity lost. Sonia Gandhi did provide a historic opportunity for the National Advisory Council (NAC) to come up with a proposal to fight hunger in such a meaningful way that makes hunger history. But the opportunity was squandered. I would have been keenly looking for a policy programme which could have spelt out how much hunger would go away in the next five years, 10 years, 15 years and so on. The proposed law could have been easily designed in a manner that aimed to remove hunger once and for all rather than keep the majority population dependent on food doles for all times to come. An economically viable and sustainable agriculture should have been at the centre of the food security programme. With nearly 2,500 farmers quitting agriculture every day and nowhere to go, the scourge of hunger is only going to multiply.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has complimented 38 countries, including Brazil, for beating a UN deadline of 2015 to remove half of their hunger. It was in 2000 when the UN established the Millennium Development Goals for countries, the first target being to reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half by 2015. These countries are: Algeria, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Benin, Brazil, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chile, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Georgia, Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Maldives, Nicaragua, Niger, Nigeria, Panama, Peru, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Thailand, Togo, Turkmenistan, Uruguay, Venezuela and Vietnam.

Economic impediment

While I agree that 91% reduction in global hunger since 1991-92 has come from the efforts made by just two countries, China and Vietnam, it's significant that some other countries are fast racing to eradicate hunger. Even if these countries have relatively smaller populations (except Indonesia and Bangladesh), hunger is a scourge that blots development everywhere, including tiny nations. A hungry nation can never be economically strong, howsoever it may try to paint a rosy picture based on statistical jugglery.

The proposed national food security bill, therefore, was an excellent opportunity to plan a time-bound programme - that cuts into several related ministries. Besides agriculture, rural development, science and technology, the law should have also corrected many distortions coming through international trade, industry and land acquisitions.

Take the case of the dairy sector. It is generally believed that most farmers who have not committed suicide are the ones who are also keeping dairy animals. But under the proposed Indo-European Union Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which is about to be signed, India has agreed to drastically reduce import duties on milk and dairy products. This will bring in a flood of cheaper imports which the European Union is saddled with. These highly subsidised imports will hit not only the cooperative dairy sector but also render small farmers uneconomical.