The hunger enigma

The forthcoming India visit of US President Barack Obama, accompanied by Thomas J. Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, and Dr Rajiv Raj Shah, administrator, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is significant in the context of strengthening Indo-US partnership in the field of agriculture production and sustainable food security. Several related issues will be discussed in Mumbai on November 6 and 7 where an agriculture fair is also being held to demonstrate the power of new technologies.
India and the US had a beneficial partnership in agriculture in the 1950s and ’60s, particularly with regard to the establishment of farm universities. Science has no frontiers and, therefore, I am hopeful that mutually-beneficial collaborations between agriculture scientists of India and US can be firmed up, and the progress in achieving freedom from hunger in both the countries speeded up.
The Global Hunger Index 2010 (GHI), compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute, ranks India among the countries where the prevalence of hunger is alarming. The index highlights the crisis of child undernutrition that leads to denial, even at birth, of the opportunity for full expression of a child’s innate genetic potential for physical and mental development. This is the cruelest form of “inequity and social exclusion”. However, there is an encouraging feature of the GHI report — that India is making slow but steady progress in ending poverty-induced hunger. It is clear that if our policies and programmes become child and mother nutrition centric, we will be able to eliminate hunger sooner than commonly considered possible.
The Indian enigma in the field of nutrition relates to the coexistence of widespread child and adult undernutrition and the availability of numerous safety net schemes at the Central and state level to combat endemic hunger.
India was the first country to conceive and implement an Integrated Child Development Service. But that was nearly 40 years ago. Today, if we re-examine it, the key problem is obvious: lack of convergence and synergy among the numerous programmes, i.e. need for a “deliver as one” approach. We need coordinated action by panchayati raj institutions, state governments, the Government of India, the private sector and civil society organisations, with a well-defined authority and system of accountability.
Governance issues, including tackling corruption and the use of appropriate new technologies like smart cards, deserve serious and urgent attention. If this is not done, the Indian enigma in the area of hunger will continue to haunt us and we will not be able to reap the demographic dividend associated with a young population.
Food security involves the availability of food, which is a function of production; access, which is a function of purchasing power; and absorption in the body, which is a function of clean drinking water, sanitation and primary healthcare.
To ensure all these, it is important that nutritional and healthcare support for children in the first 1,000 days of their life, for pregnant women belonging to underprivileged families, and for destitute, street children and persons affected by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and leprosy be made a legal entitlement under the proposes National Food Security Act. Nursing women should also be given financial support for six months following delivery.
The National Advisory Council (NAC), chaired by Sonia Gandhi, has, in fact, already recommended legal entitlement to cereals and millets for 75 per cent of India's population (90 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population).
The major aim of legal entitlements is to ensure that no Indian goes to bed hungry and that no child is denied an opportunity to realise his/her genetic potential for physical and mental growth.

The PRICES of foodgrains like wheat, maize and rice are going up, thereby increasing economic access related hunger. We have to build our Food Entitlements Act on the basis of homegrown food. I have often emphasised that a Food Security Act can be implemented effectively only with the help of farmers, and that the future belongs to nations with grains and not guns.
Since over 60 per cent of India’s population depends on farming for their livelihood, providing assured and remunerative price, on the lines suggested by the National Commission on Farmers will help increase the productivity and profitability of small farm holdings on one hand, and end malnutrition in the families of producer-consumers on the other.
It was farmers who converted a small government programme into a mass movement in the 1960s, leading to the onset of the green revolution. Similarly, it is only farmwomen and men who can convert the political vision for a hunger-free India into reality.
But there are several steps the government can take, starting with providing safe drinking water and extending the Total Sanitation Programme throughout the country during the XII Plan period.
Hidden hunger caused by the deficiency of micronutrients like iron, iodine, zinc, Vitamin A and Vitamin B 12 is another serious problem. Iron deficiency anaemia is widely prevalent among pregnant women leading to the birth of children with low birth weight. Nutrition literacy should find a place in all the education guarantee programmes.
Immediate steps to overcome hidden hunger must include mainstreaming nutrition in the national horticulture mission (for every nutritional malady there is a horticultural remedy), and the extensive use of iron and iodine fortified salt. Salt fortified with vitamins is also available. A synergy between legal entitlements and enabling provisions will help ensure food security for every Indian.

M.S. Swaminathan is the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers. He is considered to be the father of India’s green revolution.

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