Usher in changes to ensure no Indian goes hungry | Opinion
Broaden the food security Act; add breakfast to midday meals for schools; prioritise one nation, one ration cardUpdated: May 07, 2020 19:03 IST
The coronavirus disease (Covid-19)-induced pandemic has triggered a civilisational crisis with no immediate end in the sight. Many would reckon that India has done well to contain it. Yes, this is a crisis of enormous dimensions with extreme complexities. Lives are under threat, livelihoods are at stake, large reverse migration is underway, and the economy is in a tailspin with disruptions. This requires a multi-pronged response mechanism.
The Union government, along with the state governments, is working on these lines. A national economic relief package has been announced, with more in the offing. The economy is being opened up incrementally. State governments are addressing migration woes. People are getting used to the idea of their homes being their second workplace.
If there is one image of the national lockdown that has stayed with most of us, it is that of migrant labourers trudging to their respective home towns. Such episodes have been reported from Delhi, Mumbai, Surat, parts of Telangana, and elsewhere.
More than 90% of the workforce is in the unorganised sector. In the lockdown, it’s the poorest and the marginalised who are hit the most. A United Nations University report says that 104 million more people could slip below the poverty line in India due to the crisis. An International Labour Organization report, on the other hand, says that around 400 million workers in the unorganised sector of India could sink further into poverty due to this.
When the poorest don’t have enough for two square meals a day, it means that we, as a nation, have failed them. Look around and you will hear appalling stories of starvation deaths and malnourishment. All this will get exacerbated if the lockdown is extended.
It’s generally believed that democracy, and a free Press, are the best guarantees against starvation.
So, where have we failed? What can be done to ensure that starvation and hunger deaths don’t assume the form of a crisis in the uncertain times ahead?
When I moved a private member’s resolution, advocating for a zero hunger Act in the Lok Sabha in 2006, I got overwhelming across-the-board support. A responsive political class, media, and civil society groups ensured that India got a National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013. It entitles 67% of the population (75% in rural India, and 50% in urban India) to five kg of food grains per person per month for priority households.
The Act covers over 810 million people. During the lockdown, the government has increased the monthly quota of subsidised food grains to seven kg per person along with the free distribution of five kg food grains under the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna for the next three months.
While the spread of the NFSA is welcome, more needs to be done. India ranks 72nd in a list of 113 countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2019 Global Food Security Index, where availability, affordability, quality and safety of food are measured. Or, the Global Hunger Index of 2019, which ranks India at the 102nd position in a list of 117 countries.
As part of a long-term plan, India, like other countries, is working to end hunger, and eliminate malnutrition by 2030, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A 2019 Niti Aayog report says that Goa, Mizoram, Kerala, Chandigarh are among the states and Union territories that are doing well, but others are lagging behind.
As India comes to terms with a new post-Covid-19 normal, we should work vigorously towards a hunger-free, malnourishment-free India well before the deadline. This must be the top priority as we rejig our priorities. While the SDGs with 2030 as the deadline were launched in 2016, countries like Brazil launched a war on hunger way back in 2003, with its pioneering “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger) aimed at providing everyone enough food, and the right kind of food, for nutritional needs and well-being.
We should use this crisis as an opportunity to undertake large-scale changes to be able to feed India, especially the most vulnerable sections, in the right manner.
The five kg food grain quantum under the NFSA should be raised to 10kg going forward. The government could consider introducing breakfast, in addition to midday meals, in schools, to ensure that children are healthy. It’s time to make the NFSA coverage universal. The Food Corporation of India’s godowns are filled to capacity with more than three times the buffer stock it is required to maintain. In other words, no one going to a public distribution system shop must be turned away because of the absence of a ration card. Some states have already acted on this.
A problem faced by migrant workers is that the ration cards from their places of origin are not valid in other states. The Union government is readying a “one nation, one ration card” scheme, and this needs to be prioritised. In the post-lockdown period, the issue has become particularly important, with large-scale reverse migration.
Another important problem pertains to the linking of Aadhaar cards to ration cards. In many rural areas, the identification infrastructure often malfunctions. The glitches in the verification process must not become an excuse to deny someone food grains. We also need to universalise direct transfers to those living on the fringes.
Let the Covid-19 crisis usher in policy changes that ensure that our poorest are well fed, their nourishment needs taken care of, and their dignity upheld. It is only then that India will be able to script an inclusive growth story.