|Bridging the nutritional divide 4|
Agenda 2007: A hunger-free India
The Prime Minister and the Government of India are to be commended for three important recent initiatives for dealing with the mounting grain stocks in a socially and environmentally meaningful manner. First, the Prime Minister announced on August 15 the initiation of the Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana, with an initial allocation of 5 million tonnes of food grains for organising food for work programmes. Second, a million tonnes of food grains has been offered to Afghanistan through the World Food Programme, the largest assistance of this kind given by any nation to a people in deep distress. Third, the government has decided to launch a Grain Bank Scheme (GBS) in tribal areas, with an initial allocation of one million tonnes of food grains and Rs 66 crore in cash for meeting transportation costs.
India is home to the largest number of poor in the world, judged by the World Bank’s poverty line of a per capita income of US $1 or less per day (about Rs 48 per capita per day). Food stocks are growing, while chronic protein-energy under-nutrition caused by poverty, hidden hunger resulting from micro-nutrient deficiencies, and transient hunger triggered by natural calamities like drought, still prevail to an unacceptable extent. A famine of income, which in its turn arises from a famine of jobs or sustainable livelihood opportunities, is currently our major food security challenge. This is where the huge grain stocks afford rare opportunities for eliminating endemic hunger, strengthening ecological security, reducing the number of school ‘push-outs’ who are victims of unfavourable economic and social circumstances, and minimising the incidence of diseases like tuberculosis and leprosy, where complete cure needs prolonged treatment.
While the manner of use of the grains offered to Afghanistan is not in our hands, we can shape the impact of the Sampoorna Gramin Rozgar Yojana and the tribal food and health security programmes in a manner that both economic development and ecological regeneration are accelerated. This will, however, call for a community-centred and controlled Food Bank movement. The term ‘Food Bank’ is preferable to ‘Grain Bank’, since in many tribal and rural areas, tuber crops serve as life-saving foods. Local grains like ragi, samai, bajra and several other millets are more nutritious than wheat or rice and they, along with other life-saving crops like tubers, can also be purchased and distributed once the CGBs are established with the initial grant of grains offered by the government. The CGBs should not be conceived as an emergency operation, but should be structured in a manner that they become the hubs of a sustainable and replicable community nutrition and ecological security system.
As mentioned earlier, the Community Grain Banks can perform multiple functions depending upon local needs and opportunities. In the area of health, the control of tuberculosis and leprosy can be speeded up if food grains can be given to those whose economic circumstances do not permit taking drugs regularly over many months. The Tuberculosis Research Centre at Chennai is initiating an imaginative programme in collaboration with the UN World Food Programme, for using food grains to encourage the regular intake of the needed drugs. Similarly, in the area of education, economic and social conditions prevent many children, belonging to the category of child labour, as well as adolescent girls, from continuing their school education. By introducing carefully designed food for education programmes, substantial progress can be made in reducing the prevalence of such school push-outs.
Another area of nutrition security which can be strengthened through CGBs is the introduction of a whole life-cycle approach to overcoming malnutrition during various stages in one’s life, ranging from pregnant mothers and infants to old and infirm persons. This will help to bring down speedily the incidence of low birth weight children and infant and maternal mortality rates. This will call for steps which can foster the integrated implementation of numerous ongoing nutrition intervention programmes.
Strengthening ecological security will be another lasting benefit of the use of grains for the conservation and enhancement of natural resources. The new tribal area grain bank programme should be structured in such a manner that food grains are used to establish field-level gene banks to conserve local agro-biodiversity, seed banks and water banks. CGBs can then promote concurrent progress in achieving desirable goals in conservation, education and nutrition. The storage bins can be designed according to local climatic conditions and separate bins can be fabricated locally for different grains. The Save Grain programme of the government can be used for training and capacity-building in storage methods. The Rural Godown Scheme can be integrated with CGBs.
Grain Banks already exist in different parts of the country, set up and operated by both government and non-governmental agencies. The Madhya Pradesh government has institutionalised the grain bank (Anna Kosh) programme. The government of Rajasthan is planning to integrate the CGB initiative with the ongoing Gandhi Gram Yojana, which has several social and ecological objectives, including local-level water security. The available experience stresses the need for community control and involvement to ensure sustainability and replicability. Otherwise, the grain banks will vanish when government support ends.
CGBs should become central to community-managed nutrition and ecological security programmes. Only then will transaction costs become affordable and the programme replicable. CGBs provide opportunities for achieving convergence and synergy among the numerous yojanas initiated in recent years, including the Annapoorna and Antyodaya Anna Yojana. The time is opportune for unifying all of them under the supervision of Gram Sabhas into a community nutrition security system based on a whole life-cycle approach.
The US operates the following three programmes involving the distribution of grains.
Food for Peace (PL-480) — started in 1949
Food for Progress — started in 1985
Food for Education — started in 2000
Other than the United States, India is the only country in a position to launch such programmes. We have reached a stage in our agricultural evolution when our production will increase only if we can improve consumption. In this context, the Sampoorna Gramin Yojana, the Tribal Area Grain Bank programme and Annapoorna are extremely important steps in using surplus food grains for peace, progress and development.
This unique initiative may be continued and consolidated with the launching of three programmes soon:
n Food for coastal ecological security: One million tonnes of grains may be made available to coastal states as well as to the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep administrations for food for work programmes designed to restore mangrove wetlands, coral reefs and sea grass beds, and to control sea erosion and organise agro-aqua and agro-forestry programmes.
n Food for the security of mountain ecosystems: About 2 million tonnes of food grains may be made available to states in the Himalayan (including Northeastern states) and Western and Eastern Ghats regions for the eco-restoration of hydrologic and biodiversity "hot spots", for preventing genetic and soil erosion and for establishing field gene banks through in situ on-farm conservation.
n Nagarpalika Rozgar Yojana: Two million tonnes of food grains may be made available to urban local bodies for undertaking scientifically designed treatment and recycling of all solid and liquid wastes, including conversion of wastes into organic manure, urban water harvesting and for the bio-environmental management of mosquitoes. With a slump in construction activities, urban unemployment leading to urban crime is increasing and it will be useful to use the opportunity provided by grain availability for improving sanitation and environmental hygiene in towns and cities, in addition to converting a public health problem into public wealth.
Thanks to the impressive grain stocks, which may go up to 100 million tonnes next year, if the consumption capacity of the poor does not improve, we have for the first time in the history of independent India an opportunity to leapfrog in achieving freedom from poverty-induced hunger, illiteracy and ill-health. I hope we will not miss this opportunity, since it may not occur again.
This article is based on
a plenary lecture delivered at the
M.S. Swaminathan, a founding father of the Green Revolution in India, worked to develop the nation’s food security as Secretary for Agriculture. He has also been Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the International Rice Research Institute, Independent Chairman of the FAO Council, and President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He is a member of the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy and the Italian and Chinese Academies. His honours include the World Food Prize, UNEP’s Sasakawa Award and the Tyler and Honda Prizes. He lives in Chennai, where he heads the Centre for Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development