As India’s parliamentarians continue to disrupt Parliament or the so-called “Temple of Democracy”, the much anticipated National Food Security Bill (NFSB) has been put on the back burner. Consequently, millions of Indian will continue to sleep on empty stomach, tossing and turning all night dreaming for the day when eating food will not be a luxury anymore. Ironically, India presents a unique case of a country that, on the one hand, has the largest number of hungry people and, on the other, has an inventory of food stocks rotting in the granaries. As per the World Food Program (WFP), “India is home to about 25 per cent of the world’s hungry poor. Although the country grows enough food for its people, pockets of hunger remain.”

Another estimate by the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reveals that out of 868 million undernourished people worldwide, 217 million people live in India. The proposed National Food Security Bill is a step in the right direction to bridge the inequality in the distribution of food by assuring sufficient quantity and quality of foodgrain to the citizens.

It is universally accepted that hunger remains the number one cause of death in the world and India is badly affected as it is home to the largest number of undernourished people. Hunger is co-related to nutrition as prolonged hunger can lead to malnutrition, which will have an adverse affect on cognitive and motor development of the victims.

Critics of the NFSB often point to the heavy leakages in the public distribution system that make this bill less efficient and often call it a waste of resources. They should be alarmed by the fact that at least 61 million pre-school children are stunted in India and at least 200 million Indians are hungry and malnourished. While we boast of the demographic dividend as the country’s USP, malnutrition is seriously jeopardising the health of almost 50% of children on whom we are banking to share the responsibility of our nation. The World Bank estimates that micronutrient deficiency alone may cost India $2.5 billion annually and another report estimates that malnutrition knocks off at least 3% of the GDP of the country, thus taking away the demographic advantage.

Other critics say that a faster economic growth rather than food security will help reduce malnutrition. However, if economic growth were to reduce malnutrition then States like Gujarat would have been ranked higher in Human Development Indicators. A closer look at the HDI data reveals that despite the high economic growth enjoyed by Gujarat, a high rate of malnutrition still prevails.

In Gujarat, 45% of children are undernourished, 36% of women have BMI less than 18.5 and 61% of the women belonging to the Scheduled Tribes fall under the undernourished category. Finally, the incidence of poverty is as high as 50% in rural Gujarat.

On the other hand, countries like Brazil have made significant leaps in overcoming hunger by providing food security to the citizens. Brazil’s Fome Zero or Zero Hunger programme was initiated by the government in 2003. Based on the pillars of conditional cash transfer, school meals and strengthening family agriculture, Fome Zero has been able to reduce poverty, provide food security and reduce hunger. Within five years, Brazil’s child mortality rate was reduced by 13 points and 20 million people came above the poverty line. Although India and China demonstrated better economic growth than Brazil in the last decade, Brazil surpassed both countries in reducing poverty and increasing food security for its citizen.

No doubt that the food security bill needs more clarity on public distribution, grievance redress and provision of fortified meal. There is also need to include sanitation, health, and increased farm production within the ambit of food security. In future, there should be a possibility to include multiple ministries and government programmming like mid-day meal & MGNREGA in conjunction with food security. However, this is a remarkable initiative by the UPA government to bring people out of hunger and undernourishment.

The food security bill is an opportunity to bring those millions of citizens out of starvation darkness by offering them affordable and healthy food and leading the nation to a prolific sunshine.

(The writer is a social healthcare analyst and has internationally worked on health welfare programmes. Email: anurodhj@gmail.com)

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