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Count down from 2007

One of the messages of global agriculture is that while the world's population will be better fed by 2030, millions of people in developing countries will remain chronically hungry. Noted agriculture scientist Dr. M.S. SWAMINATHAN outlines a 12-point plan to achieve the goal of a hunger-free India.

There must be action to permanently remove the root causes of food crises.

DURING the last three years, scientists of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation at Chennai and of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), New Delhi, have been working together on the causes of food insecurity in rural and urban India using multiple indicators relating to food availability, access and absorption in the body. The Food Insecurity Atlases of Rural and Urban India provide valuable guidelines for public action to end chronic under-and mal-nutrition in the different States. Using these guidelines, an action plan was developed at a multi-stakeholder consultation held at New Delhi between April 4 and 5, 2003, under the joint auspices of the MSSRF, the WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Releasing the Food Insecurity Atlas of Rural India on April 24, 2001, the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, called for concerted action to achieve substantial freedom from hunger by August 15, 2007, which marks the 60th anniversary of independence, thereby helping to fulfil the hope of Mahatma Gandhi that no child, woman or man should go to bed hungry in independent India. To quote Mr. Vajpayee:

"The sacred mission of a `Hunger Free India' needs the cooperative efforts of the Central and State Governments, local self-government bodies, non-governmental organisations, international agencies and above all, our citizens. We can indeed banish hunger from our country in a short time. Let us resolve today to make this mission substantially successful by 2007, which will mark the sixtieth anniversary of our independence."

The Challenge:

The quantitative and qualitative dimensions of the challenge of achieving a hunger-free India are daunting. The incidence of poverty, endemic hunger, communicable diseases, infant and maternal mortality rates, low birth weight children and stunting and illiteracy is high. There are however many examples where progress in the elimination of poverty-induced hunger has been rapid because of a symphony approach in dealing with the multi-dimensional problem of hunger and malnutrition. Successful experiences in the elimination of hunger and poverty have shown that synergy between political will and action and strategic partnerships can help local communities to achieve seemingly impossible tasks. Such "messages and methods of hope" should therefore be documented and spread widely, since they not only inspire confidence that the goal of a hunger-free India can be achieved, but will also help to build the self-confidence of all engaged in the mission of overcoming under-and mal-nutrition.

Basic Approach: Food with Human Dignity

Food with Human Dignity should be the basic approach. The poor should not be subjected to a patronage approach and referred to as "beneficiaries" but should be treated as partners in achieving the aim of ensuring that every child, woman and man in the country has an opportunity for a productive and healthy life. The right to adequate food and clean drinking water should be regarded as a basic right.

Thrust of the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007):

The Tenth Five Year Plan has shifted the emphasis from food security at the household level to nutrition security at the level of each individual. Emphasis has been placed on employment, education, health and nutrition, which are all important for poverty eradication and hunger elimination. The inter-sectoral nature of chronic hunger has been recognised. By shifting the attention to individuals, the strategies adopted will be based on the principle of social inclusion and will help to foster a life cycle approach in nutrition interventions. For example, pregnant women will need special attention, since maternal and foetal under nutrition leads to the birth of babies characterised by a weight of less than 2.5 kg at the time of delivery. Such low birth weight (LBW) children suffer several handicaps in later life and may not be able to express their innate genetic potential for mental and physical development. Such inequity at birth is inexcusable since we are now entering a knowledge based economy. Similarly, the elderly and the infirm need special attention. Thanks to advances in preventive and curative medicine, we are now adding years to life. However, we should pay equal attention to adding life to years through nutrition and health care. We should recognise that we are now entering a new chapter in human longevity. There is, therefore, need for a proper match between nutrition requirements and nutrition support at different stages in the life of an individual.


Hunger is the extreme manifestation of poverty, since the poor spend a high proportion of their earning on food. The elimination of hunger is thus the first requisite for eradicating poverty. Without adequate nutrition, the energy needed for higher work output will not exist in malnourished individuals.

Guiding Principles for Converting Goals into Accomplishments:

  • Decentralisation:

    The desired goal can be achieved speedily and surely only if a decentralised approach to implementation is adopted. "Think, plan and act locally and support at the State and national levels" should be the motto. Elected local bodies, together with the departments of Government (Health, education, women and child welfare, rural and tribal development, etc.) concerned should prepare Micro-level Action Plans. They should form a local level "Alliance for a healthy and productive life for all". Elected members of local bodies, particularly the one million elected women members can be empowered to spearhead the freedom from hunger movement, since they are more aware of the problems of nutrition and drinking water. Decentralisation will enhance accountability, reduce transaction costs and remove corruption in delivery systems.

  • Life-cycle Approach:

    For ensuring nutrition security at the level of each individual, a life-cycle approach is necessary so that the nutrition needs of an individual can be met from birth to death. Special programmes for adolescent girls, pregnant women, nursing mothers, infants (0-2 years) and the elderly and the infirm should continue. What is needed is the horizontal integration of numerous vertically structured programmes. Such a functional integration will help to create a symphony at the level of each village/town/city to ensure that all links in the food availability-access-absorption chain function at a high level of efficiency and effectiveness. Management tools and not additional monetary support will be needed to bring about at the field level such convergence and synergy among ongoing programmes.

  • Information, education and communication:

    There is need for launching a Nutritional Literacy movement to spread an awareness of the adverse consequences of malnutrition induced intellectual and physical dwarfism among children. The Nutritional Literacy movement should include issues relating to food safety, codex alimentarius standards, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, etc. The mass media, particularly those in the public sector like Doordarshan and All India Radio can play a very important role in making the Hunger-free India movement a success. Community Radio stations, giving location-specific information, should be encouraged to assist other mass media in spreading messages of hope. It will be useful to set up Media Resource Centres for a Hunger-free India. Such centres can provide credible and timely information to the print, audio, video and new (i.e. internet) media.

  • Household Entitlement card:

    It will be useful to provide every family with an Entitlement Card, giving information on the various government projects which they can access. The information may be disaggregated by gender, age, religion, caste and class, and precise addresses of contact persons and offices may be given. Such information will enable everyone to make the best use of their entitlements. A single step of this kind will help enormously to ensure the effective utilisation of all the schemes of central and State governments and bilateral and multilateral donors.

  • Asset Building and Community Development:

    The poor are poor because they have no assets like land, livestock or a fish pond. They often are illiterate and lack proper dwelling units. They survive on wage employment, which, particularly in the case of women, does not reach the level of even the prescribed minimum wage. A massive effort is needed to help them to shift from unskilled to skilled work through training in market-driven skills. The on-going micro-finance led self-help revolution will be the fastest way to help them to rise above the poverty level. This will call for establishing effective forward and backward linkages, particularly with technology sources and markets. Insurance and Venture Capital support should also be available to micro-enterprises. We have now an opportunity to leapfrog in achieving our goal of enabling every one to earn his/her daily bread.

  • Capacity Building:

    Since a decentralised approach involving the empowerment of over three million women and men members of local bodies holds the key to the success of this national movement for food and clean drinking water for all, it is essential that a national consortium of Agricultural, Rural and Womens' Universities as well as government and non-governmental training and research institutions is formed for undertaking capacity building in areas such as management, communication and organisational skills with reference to the implementation of the hunger-free area programme. The capacity building programmes can be organised on a Trainers' Training model, in order to achieve a multiplier effect.

  • Initiation of a National Food for Social Capital Programme:

    The social capital of a country is the product of interaction between the human capital and the cultural, political, economic, nutritional and natural environments. Human and social capitals constitute the most precious wealth of a nation. Mahatma Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave advocated the principles of antyodaya and sarvodaya for achieving high social synergy and capital. A society committed to building its social capital will try to promote programmes which represent a "win-win" situation for all, thereby avoiding winners and losers and the consequent social conflict and disruption. During the last few years, the Government of India as well as some State Governments have initiated many programmes like "Sampoorn Gramin Rozgar Yojana", "Annapoorna", "Antyodaya Anna Yojana", "Universal Noon-meal Programme for School Children", etc. It is now clear that our farmers will produce more if we can enhance consumption and thereby opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing. Therefore, the initiation of a National Food Guarantee Scheme will help to ensure that all who are hungry today due to a lack of livelihood opportunities or other constraints are able to have food for a productive life. Such a National Food Guarantee Scheme can serve as an umbrella for all ongoing projects like those mentioned earlier. In addition, it can provide food grains for initiating a Nagarpalika Rozgar Yojana as well as for a wide variety of social support initiatives like Food for Health (TB, HIV/AIDS, malaria etc.,), Food for those employed in ICDS, nutritious noon meal and other similar projects. In other words, food can become a powerful currency for achieving the goal of a hunger-free India. Using food as a currency has twin advantages, namely, there could be greater off-take of food grains from farmers, thereby providing them with an incentive to produce more, and secondly for meeting the immediate needs of the poor, destitutes, migrant labour and all who are under nourished today.

    The Urban Food Insecurity Atlas released by the President in October 2002 clearly brings out the urgent need for attending to the hunger problems of the bottom 10 per cent of the poor (ultra-poor) in towns and cities. Therefore, the setting up of an umbrella programme combining the principles of the Employment Guarantee Scheme of Maharashtra and of various Food for Work Programmes under a National Food for Social Capital Programme will be timely. This could serve as the hub of a series of activities. It can start with a total allocation of 15 to 20 million tonnes of food grains during 2003-04. Such a block grant of food grains can be managed by a Malnutrition-free India Trust, headed by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. The trust can sanction small projects to meet specific local requirements as well as to fill gaps in the ongoing programmes. At least five million tonnes of grain should be available to support local level Community Food Banks in "hunger and hydrologic hot spot" areas and specific programmes designed to improve maternal and foetal nutrition as well as to provide nutrition support to those affected by TB, leprosy and other diseases. Such a Food Guarantee Initiative will be psychologically an important index of the capability of farmers to produce more on the one hand, and the political commitment to achieve the Prime Minister's goal of a hunger-free India by August 15, 2007, on the other.

  • Monitoring and Evaluation:

    This could be done at various levels starting with Gram Sabha and citizens groups (like the Right to Food Group) government agencies and research institutions. An effective and transparent monitoring system will also help to ensure the implementation of the directives of the Supreme Court.

  • Consultative Group for Freedom from Hunger:

    The elimination of hunger is the first requisite for alieviating poverty.

    Both at the national and State levels, multi-stakeholder Consultative groups for "Agenda 2007: Hunger-free India" could be organised comprising representatives of the ministries and departments concerned, professional experts, the National Commission for Women, civil society organisations, business and industry, the mass media and bilateral and multilateral donors, with the Planning Commission serving as a nodal agency for such a consultative group. Such a CGFFH would help to foster strategic partnerships as well as synergy among political leaders, professionals and peoples' organisations.

  • Standing Committee of the National Development Council (NDC):

    A standing committee of the NDC could be set up for monitoring progress and ensuring the success of Agenda 2007. The NDC Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, could include chief ministers where there is widespread under-and mal-nutrition as well as of food secure states, so that there could be lateral sharing of experiences among States. Such a standing committee could provide the political guidance and support needed for implementing this important programme.

  • Immediate action during 2003-2004:

    Besides the announcement of the 20 million tonnes Food for Social Capital Programme and the setting up of a Malnutrition-free India Trust, immediate action needs to be taken to end poverty induced chronic hunger and the transient hunger caused by drought and natural calamities through a series of Community Food, Fodder and Feed Banks. Such banks may be established in all the "hunger hot spots" of the country. CFBs managed by local self-help groups, preferably of women, would save considerable transaction and transport costs. They will also help to widen the food security basket through inclusion of local grains like millets, pulses, oilseeds and tubers. It will also be advisable to reclassify coarse cereals as "nutritious grains" in order to underline their desirable nutritive properties.

  • No time to relax on the Food Production Front. While the alleviation of hunger by improving access to income and balanced diets and safe drinking water should receive high priority, there is no time to relax on the food production front. We need to bring about productivity, quality (including food safety), profitability and sustainability revolutions in farming based on a Farming Systems Approach. There is an urgent need for enhancement of investment in agriculture and rural infrastructure development. There is also need for conferring on small producers the power of scale through cooperatives, self-help groups and other socially viable methods of group endeavour both at the production and post-harvest phases of farming. Our spectatular progress in the dairy sector is largely though such management innovations. There is need for a movement for trade and quality literacy including an understanding of sanitary and phytosanitary measures and codex alimentarius standards. There is also need for launching a Jal Swaraj and Water Literacy Movement. Above all, there is need for a paradigm shift from jobless to job-led growth in order to ensure that every poor person is enabled to earn his or her daily bread.

    Unless our agricultural competitiveness improves, our earnings from the farm sector in international markets will not grow significantly. In a predominantly rural and agricultural country like India, agricultural progress (i.e. crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry and agro-forestry and agro-processing) is the most effective social safety net against hunger and poverty. Hence, the ongoing fatigue of the green revolution in wheat, rice and other major crops should be converted into an ever-green revolution designed to promote productivity improvement in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. A beginning has been made in the Union Budget for 2003-04 to focus attention on precision farming, economic use of water and nutrients through fertigation techniques and green house horticulture.

    Such a focus on improving factor productivity in agriculture should be further enlarged to cover all the major agro-ecosystems.

    Agricultural and rural development, if given adequate and appropriate attention, will help the country to take to the path of job-led economic growth.

    Our substantial grain and foreign exchange reserves and the three million women and men elected members of local bodies have provided us with an uncommon opportunity for launching a frontal attack on hunger and poverty. It will be a tragedy if we don't act, when we are in a position to act.

    To conclude, the "Agenda 2007: Hunger Free Area Programme" should keep in mind the following advice of Gandhiji given before his death.

    "Forget the past. Remember every day dawns for us from the moment we wake up. Let us all, every one, wake up now".

    The writer is the chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. He has worked for the past 45 years with scientists and policy makers on a range of problems in basic and applied plant genetics as well as in agricultural research and development.

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