Hungry millions

The Indian enigma consists of situations like “grain mountains and hungry millions”, “agricultural progress coupled with persistence of malnutrition” and “green revolution fame concurrently with farmers suicides”. Since independence, several steps have been taken by both the state and Central governments to abolish hunger and malnutrition. This is because our independence was born in the backdrop of the Bengal Famine. Mahatma Gandhi also said at Noakhali that to the hungry, god is bread and that the god of bread should reside in every home and hut.

A majority of the population of India live in villages with agriculture constituting the major livelihood source. Agriculture is carried out in the form of farming systems comprising crops, farm animals, inland and marine fisheries and forestry and agroforestry. The farm size is small and the marketable surplus also tends to be small. Therefore, our farmers face serious economic problems resulting from the cost — risk and return structure of agriculture.

Malnutrition and undernutrition are also high in the rural population. This is why there is a growing understanding of the need to link agriculture, nutrition and health in a mutually reinforcing manner. I, therefore, designed a farming system nutrition (FSN) programme which will provide agricultural remedies, to the major nutritional deficiencies, including micronutrients like zinc, iron, iodine, vitamin A etc. FSN will help to not only improve the yield of crops but also mainstream the nutrition dimension in the choice of crops. To enable farmers to identify crops that can provide specific nutrients like vitamin A, a genetic garden of biofortified crops is being established as part of FSN. Also, women and men members of the community, who are willing to undertake training in nutrition, will be helped to attain nutritional literacy. Such members of the local community thus become community hunger fighters.

Food based approach to end malnutrition

Long ago, Hippocrates advocated “let food be thy medicine.” The opportunity for adopting this principle is now great since a large number of biofortified crops, such as vitamin A rich sweet potato, multiple micronutrient rich moringa, are now available. The question is how we can implement this in an integrated manner. I propose the following:

Eliminate under-nutrition or calorie deprivation through the effective implementation of the provisions of the National Food Security Act. Under this Act, not only wheat and rice, but also nutri-millets like ragi can be provided at a very low cost.

Include pulses in the PDS in order to ensure that protein hunger is eliminated. Thanks to the efforts of government, the production of pulses has gone up in the country and farmers are facing the problem of marketing.

Overcome hidden hunger caused by the deficiency in the diet of micronutrient such as vitamin A, iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin B12 etc. This can be now done by integrating agriculture and nutrition through biofortified plants. Genetic gardens of biofortified plants which can provide the specific missing micronutrient in the diet can be organised in every block. Krishi Vigyan Kendras should take this knowledge to the field and also help to train a cadre of ‘community hunger fighters’, well-versed with information on the missing micronutrients and the crops that can provide them.

Effective steps should be taken to avoid food losses and to ensure food safety, particularly with reference to aflatoxins in food. This will require the safe storage of grains under low moisture conditions.

Finally, the programme will include attention to the provision of clean drinking water, sanitation, nutritional literacy and primary health care, including immunisation.

For all the above to be sustainable, it is essential that the social engineering aspects of programme design and implementation, are given attention. The foremost among them is the need for mainstreaming the gender dimension, but recognising differences in needs and opportunities of men and women within local communities. There is also need to set up a suitable community-driven organisation to support and monitor this process. Such an organisation could be the guiding force behind the community hunger fighters.

For achieving the above, particularly integrated action, there will be a need for a suitable management and coordination structure at the district level. Monitoring and evaluation will be done in order to assess the nutritional impact of the intervention. Suitable methods of monitoring and evaluation will have to be developed and introduced. Community hunger fighters, if trained properly, can contribute to this process. Once we have the tools to overcome malnutrition, we can ensure that the god of bread resides in every home.
(The writer is an agricultural scientist who led India’s Green Revolution)

M S Swaminathan