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There’s food for thought, if not for the malnourished!
A number of recent survey findings highlight India’s tragic failure in fighting malnutrition. With an almost defunct public distribution system, and leakages abound in the delivery mechanism, can the proposed Food Security bill actually nourish India?
Issue Date - 02/02/2012
It was an occasion that would have otherwise gone unnoticed had it not been for these words by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh: “I have said earlier on a number of occasions and I repeat that the problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame. Despite impressive growth in our GDP, the level of under-nutrition in the country is unacceptably high.” He was addressing a gathering after releasing the Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) Report 2011 in New Delhi recently. Terming malnutrition as a national shame, he said that India could no longer rely solely on the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to eradicate this problem.

What repeatedly occurs to be a shame for our PM should not come as a shock to India after all. The findings of this survey once again bring to light the abysmal pace at which India has tried to deal with this problem. As many as 42% children under the age of five in the 100 districts lying at the bottom of the child development district index developed for UNICEF in 2009 are underweight. 59% children are stunted (chronically malnourished) and half of the children suffering from stunting are severely stunted. With a sample size representing almost 20% of Indian children – almost 1,10,000 children, more than 74,000 mothers and almost 3,200 Anganwadi centres – the survey throws findings that even left the PM concerned.

Although the figures hardly show any variation from the government’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS, last conducted in 2005-06), policy makers & politicians have time and again claimed that there have been marked improvements in India’s food security and nutritional status. In fact, officials argue that the government has covered a long distance in a short span of time, and they have their numbers ready – Before 2004, the presence of ICDS or Anganwadi centres in India was about 40%. The HUNGaMA report puts the figure at 96%. The number of centres too has increased to 12.94 lakh as compared to 6 lakh between 1975 and 2005. Between the 10th and the 11th five-year plans, the allocation for ICDS also went up from about Rs.10,500 crore to around Rs. 44,400 crore. But then, these arguments cannot and should not act as a shield against acting on the alarming malnutrition figures which are dismal to say the least.

Food security and nutrition being closely interlinked, women and children in the families, already reeling under food insecurity, are sure to bear the maximum brunt of it. The government considers the proposed legislation on food security as one of the solutions to the problem. However, there are many rebuttals to the concept of ensuring food security through the legislation which is said to have been drastically watered down since the Sonia Gandhi led National Advisory Council (NAC) came out with its first draft. Jean Dreze, a key member of the NAC, who had quit last year after the NAC came out with a diluted Food Bill, has been quite critical of the government’s draft of the proposed legislation. “The government draft not only ignores the demands of the right to food campaign, it even dilutes existing entitlements and also makes a mockery of the entire idea of food for all. Key provisions for malnourished children, out-of-school children, migrant workers, starvation deaths, destitute feeding and community kitchens have been deleted or diluted,” he tells B&E.

Agrees senior CPM leader Brinda Karat, who believes that the Bill, which has been approved by the Cabinet and is currently with the standing committee for consideration, will actually provide legal sanction to the very policies that have led to widespread hunger and malnutrition. She even goes on to argue that the Bill should instead be renamed as the national food insecurity bill. “Not only does it continues the system of targetting, which excludes people who require food security, it also links up entitlements with reform processes including some very contentious policy measures like cash instead of grains, biometrics, Aadhar, food coupons instead of ration cards etc. To link entitlements with these kind of contentious policies is extremely anti-people,” Brinda tells B&E. What the opposition parties reflect is the general idea that many experts also convey. “The Bill has definitely been mellowed down a lot,” says economic expert Suvrokamal Dutta. According to him, the current Food Bill lacks several ingredients that are required to make the legislation effective.

First, people below the poverty line or even marginally above the poverty line have been observed to have a larger household. “Agreed that this is because of several factors including illiteracy, lack of family planning, and awareness etc. But one must also argue that the quota of 25 kg per household is insufficient,” says Dutta. The other issues that he sees with the Bill include an absolute lack of consensus between the central and state governments and the respective bureaucracies on intricacies of the bill, anomalies in the process of identifying the households below poverty line and the absence of a proper modern methodology to identify those who are just marginally above the poverty line. “With rising inflation and escalating prices, for families who were not below the poverty line ten years ago, the case might be different now. Further, we cannot also have a family income benchmark of say Rs.100. What about households which have an income of Rs.101? These are not affluent families,” adds Dutta.

The problem of hunger and static levels of malnutrition is an outcome of policies and denial in accepting that the delivery system is not functioning. Currently, over 20 government programmes including the Mid-day Meal Programme, National Food Security Mission, Antyodaya Anna Yojna and the Annapoorna Yojana exist to provide food and nutritional security under the ambit of various ministries. However, the sheer absence of effective and leak-proof delivery mechanisms have only made matters worse. Contrary to many claims of the government having gone leaps and bounds on the issue of addressing malnutrition, another study actually claims that the situation only deteriorated during the last year. The survey, which was jointly conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), Brac University and Helen Keller International, Bangladesh, found that less than 45% families, having children below five years of age, were suffering from lack of food security during January and April, 2010. The rate shot up to 75% between February and May in 2011. Around 16% families were categorised by the survey as hungry in 2010. In 2011, the percentage of such families increased to 31. Most importantly, the survey also revealed that nearly 75% of the families were hit by the food-price inflation in 2011.


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