Where is the War Against Hunger?
UDAIPUR: In the rural tribal districts of India, the consequences of hunger and food insecurity barely matches the outcomes of the several nutritional policies implemented by the centre.
This is not only a failure in the welfare system but major structural disparities in the hunger policies of the centre and the state.
Evidence of such a policy failure can be witnessed across the functioning nutritional rehabilitation centres (NRC) in the states. A Nutritional rehabilitation centre is an in-patient facility based management setup, that provides treatment to severely acute malnourished children between the ages of 0-6 years who cannot be treated at the community level.
Such children require special assistance on their feeding patterns and need immediate change in their dietary framework to avoid further relapse. Though at the outset the objectives and goals of a Malnutrition treatment centre (MTC) looks achievable but in management of hunger and food security the policy fails miserably.
Most of these centres lack resources and structured frameworks of referrals and in-patient facilities to provide care as well as do not work on designated protocols for severe acute malnutrition management.
A major reason for these centres being dysfunctional is due to the actual policy perspective of it. According to the guidelines a severely acute malnourished child has to be admitted for a minimum of ten days at a NRC to achieve targeted weight gain at the end of it. Unfortunately, the guidelines do not highlight the larger picture of actual food security measures of the households. Once the child gets discharged from the NRC, the weight gain results decline as the child falls back into nutrient starvation with severe weight loss.
Majority of the hunger policies in India have structural inequalities and face large biases at implementation stages.
One of the major limitations arises due an unjust poverty estimate that does not include or reflect on the status of hunger or food insecurity at the household level. The present “Tendulkar” methods of poverty estimates are calculated primarily on the average monthly wage criterion that a household earns to further categorise a household into either above or below poverty line indices. Such a method does not include the indicators of average calorie consumption by a household nor depicts the average monthly grain expenditure of a family.
In the context of rural poverty, it is important that the poverty estimates evaluate grain poverty, a household which is not able to match the basic calorie indicators should be categorised under a special bracket and just not labelled as poor. In such conditions of utmost depravity, a universal poverty bracket highly underestimates the intra-household data on hunger and average calorie consumption thus matching estimates with specific vulnerability parameters for the poorest is very important.
Presently there are three main welfare schemes (Integrated child development services, public distribution scheme under and the mid-day meal) directed towards balancing the nutritional needs and food security for the rural poor.
In the last fiscal year, it was estimated that only half of the procured grains reached the poor which means on an average there was more than fifty percent leakages and diversion in ration delivery. It is surprising to see that there are a million tonnes of grain stocked in the Food corporation warehouses while several tribal communities receive less than half of their entitled ration.
It has been rightly pointed out that the grain poverty model in India suffers from the paradox of plenty. If we evaluate the present situation of chronic hunger among the poorer districts we would observe that a lot of the households frequently skip meals to gradually progress towards chronic hunger state. Some of the targeted reforms in the food polices have not yet been able to find solutions to such consequences.
Additionally, in terms of the PDS mandate the states have to reframe the calorie consumption indicators to analyse whether the entitled ration distributed through the fair price shops are able to meet the recommended nutritional norms.
One of the biggest challenges in our food security agenda is to gradually shift from achieving only food security to optimising nutritional security among the most vulnerable households.
The grain policy at present is surrounded by the question of reforming the in-kind food transfers with a cash transfer model. A cash transfer model might finally propose financial independency for the rural poor but the evidences are highly debatable. Unlike the in-kind food transfer policies the cash transfer model is not devoid of problems of market fluctuations and rapid food inflations.
The volatility in food prices will have direct effects on the purchasing powers of the households which will make grain procurement unaffordable. Also the context of the minimum support price index might be effected with a hasty transition to the cash transfer model. It will be ideally leading to an unstable situation if a minimum wage has to be balanced with rising prices and frequent variations.
Mapping various such disparities provide direct reference to the fact that a grain led development model should involve the background of communities’ perspectives than just rely on direct market assumptions.
We have been living in a decade of a liberalised economy with greater market reforms and faster foreign direct investments. It is still a matter of shame that we have more than a million underfed people in the country and several households that do not receive any grains at all.
It is not only the lack of political will and commitment to eradicate hunger but the attitude of the government to realise the fact that we are indeed a hungry nation.
A democratic government can pull millions out of hunger and poverty but it is extremely important to analyse whether the government really wants a well fed work force. In the context of rural poverty and hunger we need to evaluate and reframe the polices better such that the polices reflect food as a right and not a commodity for the poor.
(Gaurav Bhattacharya us currently working as a rural development fellow in the tribal belts of Udaipur, Rajasthan. He is a Graduate Radiation Oncologist,University of Oxford)