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India's Shameful Paradox of Plenty

By Devinder Sharma

22 April, 2010

There is no reason why in the 6 lakh villages of India, that produce food for the country, people should be living in hunger.

There is no other country that presents a more shameful paradox of plenty- grains rotting in the open while millions live in hunger. At the same time, no other country allows its staple food to be exported while the population of hungry and malnourished continues to multiply.

It can happen only in India.

In the United States, from where India borrows its economic prescriptions, food is only allowed to be exported after the country ensures that in addition to 309 million people, 168 million cats and dogs have also been well-fed. In India, food — and that includes wheat, rice, maize, pulses, fruit and vegetables — is routinely exported, and the government often provides subsidies to offset the losses incurred in trade.

In America, where one in every ten citizen lives in hunger, it provides a massive federal support of US $ 205 billion for a period of five years to feed its hungry under various nutrition supplement programmes. This marks a continuous increase over the year. In India, which has the world’s largest population of hungry, the food subsidy bill is proposed to be pruned, from Rs 56,000-crore for 2010-11 to Rs 28,000-crore, under the proposed National Food Security bill.

It happens only in India.

The plethora of government scheme to fight hunger and malnutrition is at least impressive on paper. The ministries of women and child development, human resource development and of food and agriculture between them run 22 programmes to alleviate hunger and poverty.

Despite such a wide array of programmes already running, the budget allocation for which is enhanced almost every year, the poor still go hungry. Unicef tells us that more than 5,000 children die every day in India from malnourishment. More than 320 million people, as per a conservative estimate, are unable to manage three square meals a day.

Let us accept that the existing programmes and projects have failed to make any appreciable dent. We will once again fail the nation if we refuse to bring about a radical overhaul of the existing approach to fight hunger. I have the following suggestions to make a beginning:

Poverty line: First and foremost, the time has come to draw a realistic poverty line. The Suresh Tendulkar committee has demarcated 37 per cent of the population to be living in poverty. Earlier, Arjun Sengupta committee had concluded that 77 per cent of the population is able to spend not more than Rs 20 a day. And more lately, former supreme court judge, Justice D P Wadhwa committee has recommended that anyone earning less than Rs 100 a day should be considered as living below the poverty line.

Knowing that India has one of the most stringent poverty lines in the world, I think we need to accept that faulty projections will not address the reality of hunger. It should therefore have two lines to demarcate the chronic hungry from those living in poverty.

The Tendulkar committee’s recommendation of a cut-off of 37 per cent should actually constitute the new Hunger Line, which needs low-cost foodgrain as an emergency entitlement. In addition, the Sengupta committee's recommendation at 77 per cent should be the new Poverty Line.

The approach for tackling absolute hunger and poverty would therefore be different.

Make villages hunger-free: There is no reason why in the 600,000 villages of the country, which produce food for the country, people should be living in hunger. These villages have to be made hunger-free by adopting a community-based localised foodgrain bank scheme. Such traditional systems exist in several parts of the country, and there is an immediate need for its revival.

Food for all: In the urban centres and the food deficit areas, instead of reducing the number of beneficiaries, a universal public distribution system is required.

The existing PDS system has to be overhauled, and this requires a strong political will. Also, there is a dire need to involve social and religious organisations in food distribution. At the same time, nothing can succeed if we do not ensure safe drinking water and sanitation to be part of the hunger mitigation programmes.

Financial support: It is often argued that the government cannot foot the bill for feeding each and every Indian. This is not true. In the budget 2010, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has announced a ‘revenue foregone’ of Rs 5 lakh crore, which means the sales, excise and other tax concessions plus income tax exemption for the industry and business. The annual budget exercise is for roughly Rs 11 lakh crores. Which means, the government is doling out massive subsidies to the industry.

I suggest that Rs 3 lakh crore from the 'revenue foregone' be immediately withdrawn. This should provide resources for feeding the hungry, and also for ensuring assured supply of safe drinking water and sanitation.

Policy changes: But all this is not possible, unless some other policy changes that do not take away the emphasis on long-term sustainable farming, and stop land acquisitions and privatisation of natural resources. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is an economic burden