BOOK REVIEW

Whistle-blower on food front

D. NARASIMHA REDDY

The looming threat of food insecurity and steps to tackle it

REPORT ON THE STATE OF FOOD INSECURITY IN RURAL INDIA — World Food Programme: Pub. by M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, 3rd Cross Street, Taramani Industrial Area, Chennai-600113.

In the context of the widely shared concern about the threat of climate change to foodgrain production, particularly in warmer regions such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and high food price inflation, this report serves as a whistle-blower to the looming food insecurity in India. It is an update of the Rural Food Insecurity Atlas 2001 brought out by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. Based on seven indicators, a composite index of food and nutrition insecurity is developed. Each indicator is graded into five levels and the results are presented in the form of maps as well as tables for 19 States and for the country as a whole. This is followed by a detailed analysis of the measures taken by the state with view to provisioning for food security, and their impact.

Rise of anaemia

In spite of taking a relatively low calorific norm of less than 1890 K cal. per capita per day (comparable to average per capita per day consumption of the lowest decile) and a high growth rate of about four per cent in per capita income between 1993-94 and 2004-05, the population under calorific insecurity remained at about 13 per cent. Ironically, the relatively better developed States like Tamil Nadu (23.4 per cent), Karnataka (20.5 per cent) and Maharashtra (19.7 per cent) have a much higher proportion of population in this category than, for instance, Bihar (10 per cent) and Orissa (15.4 per cent). As for access to safe drinking water, the situation has improved over the years. Yet, the deprived population is very high at 27 per cent (2001). Worst is the case of accessibility to toilets within the living premises, with 78 per cent of the households lacking it. Quite disturbing is that, during the reforms-driven high growth period 1998-99 to 2005-06, the incidence of anaemia has actually risen from 53.90 per cent to 58.20 per cent in rural women and from 75.30 per cent to 81.20 per cent in rural children. Stunted children represent yet another aspect of nutritional deficiency that severely affects their performance as they grow, and the incidence for the country as a whole was as high as 40.70 per cent even in 2005-06. The composite index of rural food insecurity shows a girdle of high vulnerability region, from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Orissa in the East, through Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat in the West.

Less priority

The thrust of the findings is that over the years, especially since the advent of economic reforms, issues related to food and nutritional insecurity have been getting less and less priority at the policy level. The euphoria over foodgrain self-sufficiency, combined with policy shift towards structural adjustment, resulted in decrease in public investment in areas such as agricultural infrastructure, agricultural research and development, extension services, and development of right technology. This in turn affected growth of productivity especially on small farms, with a far-reaching impact on foodgrain availability in the future. In the name of fiscal constraint, food procurement, storage and distribution needs are sought to be assessed in terms of costs, leaving more room for market players in the food regime, which is having its own toll in the form of high food prices.

The Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS) get special attention as measures of state intervention. Tracing the origins of the PDS to the years of scarcity in the 1950s and the ’60s as a part of rationing, the report finds that there was a healthy spread of universal PDS in the ’80s. But in the ’90s there was a set-back. The Targeted PDS was introduced ostensibly to reduce the cost of food subsidy, to check leakages, and to prevent the diversion of grain. None of these objectives was achieved effectively. Worse, it resulted in high cost due to the holding of more stocks and the exclusion of many poor households.

In India, given the regionally adverse concentration of foodgrain production, the report emphasises that food security could be ensured only through improved universal PDS with adequate accessibility to the poor. The effectiveness of the ICDS in improving the nutritional and health status of poor children and the benefits that have flowed from the mid-day meal scheme by way of increased school enrolments are well recognised. Yet, resource allocation continues to be meagre. The fact that the Supreme Court had to intervene in activating these schemes is a sharp reflection of the state’s weak commitment.

Recommendations

The report goes on to make a number of recommendations to increase the availability of foodgrains. They include more public investment to enhance farm productivity, offering proper support prices for all foodgrains, and addressing concerns on the food and nutrition front through a lifecycle approach that envisages the strengthening of the ICDS (for pre-school children), the MDMS (for the school-going children) and the universal PDS. It emphasises that, for a sustainable food security system, the availability of sufficient stocks and an effective control over their release and distribution are essential requirements. This is of immediate relevance. One hopes that the state heeds the advice, realises the limitations of monetary measures, and acts on removing the structural constraints on the food front.



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