The need for food security floor

Tags: Op-ed
The need for food security floor
AFP
MEASURES REQUIRED: According to the National Family Health Survey (2005-06), the percentage of malnourished children under five years is over 40. The children born with low birth weight are above 21 per cent
The concept of “Food Security Fl­oor” was proposed by the high-level panel of experts (HLPE), which provides scientific advice to the committee on world food security (CFS) of the UN. I am the current chairman of HLPE and our proposal is the adoption of a bottom line approach in public policies relating to achieving the goal of sustainable food security for all in every country. The food security floor will indicate the minimum steps needed for ensuring that every child, woman and man will have an opportunity for a healthy and productive life through access to balanced diet, clean drinking water, sanitation and primary healthcare. It is in this background we should examine the National Food Security Bill 2011, currently under the consideration of a parliamentary committee. The need for effective steps to overcome the widespread malnutrition prevailing in our country will be obvious from the position we are occupying now in the world in terms of the per cent of population affected by chronic and hidden hunger.

According to the National Family Health Survey (2005-06), the percentage of malnourished children under five years is over 40. The children born with low birth weight are above 21 per cent. Nearly 80 per cent of children and 50 per cent of women are anaemic due to hidden hunger. The planning commission has estimated that about 217 million of our population go to bed hungry. We occupy the 134th position out of 187 countries in UNDP’s human development index 2012. This year’s global hunger index of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has placed us in the 65th position among 79 countries studied. The nutrition barometer (2012) published by Save the Children, indicates that we occupy a very low position in terms of political and financial commitment to the eradication of hunger. A recent report also points out that babies fed with mothers’ milk up to six months are relatively low in India. The state of food insecurity in the World Report 2012 published by FAO, IFAD and WFP emphasises that while economic growth is necessary, it alone is not sufficient to accelerate reduction in hunger and malnutrition. Therefore, a direct attack on hunger is essential and this should be the mission of the National Food Security Bill.

The stated goal of the National Food Security Bill is “to provide for food and nutritional security, in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices”. The aim of the bill is also to provide the necessary social protection without eroding human dignity. Thus, food with human dignity as advocated by Mahatma Gandhi is the goal of this unique legislation. Unfortunately, the bill will not be able to help in achieving the above goal and therefore it has rightly defined food security as meaning “the supply of the entitled quantity of foodgrains, and meals specified under the provisions of the Act”. In other words, among the three components of food security, viz., availability of food in the market, access to food and absorption of food in the body, the bill will help to deal with only the access issues. Availability can be ensured only by the effective implementation of the national policy for farmers placed in Parliament in November 2007. Similarly, effective absorption of food in the body will happen only if people have access to clean drinking water, sanitation and primary healthcare. This would imply that the provisions of the Rajiv Gandhi drinking water mission, the total sanitation programme and the national rural health mission should be implemented on a “deliver as one” approach. Today, these programmes are under different government departments and there is hardly any convergence and synergy among them.

One of the aims of the food security floor concept is to promote such convergence in the delivery of all the ingredients of food and nutrition security. It should also be remembered that farmers constitute over 60 per cent of the consuming population. The needs of such producer — consumers are not usually considered and only the requirements of urban consumers are taken into consideration. Since farmers constitute a majority of the population, it is very important to ensure that they are also provided with opportunities for healthy and balanced diet. Right now, there is a debate on the relative merits of providing cash versus grains. Cash payment may be necessary during years when there is inadequate foodgrain stock available with government. However, cash instead of grains payment has two very severe drawbacks. First, since in the bill, women are rightly treated as head of the household from the point of view of entitlements to subsidised grains, the cash also should be paid to them. Secondly, interest in procurement, as well as investment in safe storage will go down, since providing cash instead of grain is an easy option. If procurement goes down, production will go down, since opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing will be the main trigger for farmers’ interest in farming. Agriculture today constitutes the backbone of the livelihood security system for nearly two-thirds of our population. If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right in our country. Therefore, the government of India as well as state governments should always endeavour to remain in the commanding height of the national food security system.

Finally, the historic transition ‘from ship to mouth’ to ‘right to food with home grown food’ will help attack the twin problems of poverty and hunger and thereby enhance the productivity of our population. By preventing low birth weight children, we can derive full benefit from our vast youthful population. The food security floor therefore, will show the way to policy makers and political leaders on how to reap full benefit from the demographic dividend, which sh­ould normally accrue to our economy as a result of a predominantly young population.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)

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