Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Breaking cycle of hunger

In a country where tax concessions of around Rs 1.7 lakh crores are being given to SEZ developers, increased allocation for 17 crore children (i.e. Rs 650 per child per annum) is imperative at this juncture if India wants to climb up the Global Hunger Index.

India may be the second fastest growing economy in the world but it has a long way to go in eradicating hunger. Among 118 countries, it ranks 94th in the Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Though India has improved its score by 25.03 in the index with 33.73 in 1990, it is still lagging behind China and Pakistan who are ranked 47 and 88 respectively. In a country where 834 million people have per capita daily consumption of Rs 20 or less (as per the Report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector), hunger still remains one of the major challenges. High growth rate of GDP and the increase in the number of billionaires and millionaires has become meaningless for the country unless this important issue in addressed effectively. In fact, India's high growth of nine per cent has bypassed 77 per cent of the population. Hunger, as is well known, is a phenomenon related to food insecurity.

It affects the normal functioning and development of the human body and contributes to the global disease burden by drastically reducing the body's ability to resist infection. In extreme cases, death results from starvation brought about by prolonged hunger or by succumbing to infectious diseases. About 95 per cent of the developing world's hungry population can be termed "chronically hungry". The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that over 850 million people worldwide suffer from hunger today, 820 million of these in developing countries.

That there are nearly a billion hungry people in the world despite the gains made in agricultural productivity is startling. Recognizing the problem's enormity, the World Food Summit in 1996 set a goal to reduce by half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015, later reaffirmed in the first Millennium Development Goals. But half way to 2015, it is becoming clear that the goal will not be met - the estimated number of undernourished people has risen from 708 million to 2000 to over 852 million today. Widespread hunger undermines the development potential of nations. An FAO study of developing countries over 30 years found that if countries with high rates of undernourishment had increased food intake to an adequate level, their economic output or GSP would have increased by 45%. Losses in labour productivity due to hunger can cause reductions of 6-10% in per capita GDP, according to a UN Task Force on Hunger.

The IFPRI measures the Global Hunger Index based on three equally weighted indicators: a) proportion of undernourished as a percentage of the population (reflecting the share of population with insufficient dietary energy intake); b) prevalence of under weight children under the age of five (indicating the proportion of children suffering from weight loss and/or reduced growth); and c) under five mortality rate (partially reflecting the fatal synergy between inadequate dietary intake and unhealthy environment). The problem in India has basically two broad aspects: one, more attention and resources for child development including their health and nutrition, and two, ensuring that apart from increase in agricultural productivity, soil degradation is effectively met and there is more attention on dryland farming. In fact, the farm sector needs more attention and this has been well-enumerated in the National Policy for Farmers (and recent statements of the Prime Minister) - all of which call for a paradigm shift from commodity-centred to a human-centred approach in agricultural planning and programmes.

As regards the first problem, the Government has done little towards child development. In a written reply to a question in Parliament (on November 26, 2007), it admitted that only 60 million children out of 164 million have received supplementary nutrition under ICDS scheme as on June 30, 2007. It may be mentioned here that the Supreme Court had directed the Government to sanction and operationalize 14 lakh anganwadi centres by December 2008. However, presently not even 8 lakh centres are operational. There has been severe criticism of the government for such meagre resource allocation when at least Rs 7000-8000 crores are needed in any financial year for expansion of the ICDS and improving the conditions of anganwadi employees. In a country where tax concessions of around Rs 1.7 lakh crores are being given to SEZ developers, increased allocation for 17 crore children (i.e. Rs 650 per child per annum) is imperative at this juncture if India wants to climb up the Global Hunger Index.

Though in this budget the remuneration for anganwadi workers has been increased from 1,000 per month to Rs 1,500 per month, and for anganwadi helpers will be increased from Rs 500 per month to Rs 750 per month, its benefits need to be seen. The other aspect of the problem lies in accelerated agricultural advance based on conservation farming which well known scientist Dr. MS Swaminathan, had been referring as "ever-green revolution" pathway of improving productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. There have to be efforts to harvest and store rainwater during the southwest monsoon period and to use it for a second crop during October-March period. High value and low water requiring crops such as pulses, oilseeds, medicinal plants or vegetables could make all the difference for ensuring adequate nutrition and viable livelihoods for a million farm families. In States like Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh etc., farm families are in great distress because they have to depend on a single crop.

It is necessary that effective rainwater harvesting and/or sustainable use of groundwater coupled with latest dryland farming technologies need to be made available to the farming community and encouraging them through incentives to harvest a second (or even a third) crop there. This would not only raise the income of farm families but also ensure food for them throughout the year. Assistance may be sought from various schemes of the government which include the National Food Security and Horticulture Missions and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. Ending hunger and malnutrition is an achievable goal but only if Governments make the right policy decisions in this regard. However, effectively countering hunger will require greater political will, clear plan of action and sustained effort along with availability of adequate resources. The key elements of the plan should include: Helping developing countries grow more food: There has to be international efforts to ensure that there is increase in productivity in the developing countries and all regions should try to have at least two crops per year.

Technology on dryland farming, rainwater harvesting and other issues relating to sustainable use of water and pesticides should be made available to Third World countries. Extending power of technology: Notable advances have been manifest but there is need to produce plant varieties that are more resistant to drought, have higher nutritional content, require fewer chemicals and more resistant to pests. Making agriculture & nutrition national priorities: While assistance is indispensable, hungry countries must take the lead in making agriculture and nutrition national priorities. China and India have shown what can be done though a lot more needs to be done. In China, the government launched major reforms that have given farmers more freedom over what they grow. In India, the government has launched seed distribution schemes to assist farmers and milk distribution schemes to help consumers.

Each country has begun to harness its scientific capability to address issues of hunger and nutrition. Tapping the power of trade: The trading system must be a tool in ending hunger. The rich trading regions such as Europe and the United States must reduce trade-distorting agricultural subsidies that impoverish farmers in developing countries. Rich trading nations, including Japan, must slash stiff trade barriers against agricultural exports of developing countries so that food production capabilities of those countries can be enhanced. Last but not the least is to make elimination of hunger top priority. It is essential to know that it is not shortage of food but lack of political will that needs to be addressed. Eight hundred million people, many of then women and children need urgent help and support at this juncture.

Thus combating hunger and malnutrition is a critical challenge at this point of time. Greater all-round efforts on all fronts are needed to tackle the problem so that the poor and the deprived sections of society get two square balance meals a day that could enable them to lead a healthy and disease-free life. It needs to be pointed out that in spite of all achievements, if human hunger cannot be eradicated, there is bound to be more violence and social tension in society in the coming years.

By Dhurjati Mukherjee, INFA

Source: http://www.centralchronicle.com/20080318/1803301.htm


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