jointly with Prof. Charan Singh
The Food Security Bill (2013, FSB), promulgated recently by an ordinance is expected to be debated in the Parliament soon. The intention behind the FSB is noble, to eradicate hunger from the country but the means adopted need serious reconsideration. FSB, under the targeted public distribution system (TPDS), aims to provide door step delivery of subsidized food to nearly 75 percent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population. It also seeks to empower women in the households. The thrust of criticism against FSB has been on issues like procurement, storage, transportation, distribution, identification of the beneficiaries and pricing of food grains covered under the scheme.
Global Hunger Index
The FSB is motivated by two significant facts. First, disturbing statistics: According to National family Health Survey 2005-06 that 43.5 percent of children under the age of five years are underweight, 33 percent of women in the age group of 15-49 years have a body mass index below normal and 78.9 percent of children in the age group of 6-35 months are anemic. Second, the influential Global Hunger Index (GHI) developed by the International Food policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which has successfully galvanized policy makers across the world. IFPRI has computed a GHI of 22.9 for India in 2012, with countries like Libya, Iran, Mexico, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and many others recording much better performance.
Unfortunately, the term “Global hunger index” is a misnomer as it does not, in its construction take into account the ‘hungry’. Actually, the terminology “hunger” itself is very confusing and means different things to different organizations and policy makers. First and foremost, it evokes images of the extreme discomfort associated with lack of food. On the other hand UNDP defines it as a condition in which people lack the basic food intake to provide them with the energy and nutrients for fully productive lives.
GHI takes into account, in equal weights, undernourishment, child underweight and child mortality. The indicator, undernourishment, is based on the share of population with insufficient (relative to a norm) calorie intake. Child underweight is defined in terms of wasting and stunted growth and child mortality in terms of death rates, both reflecting unhealthy environment. It is much too simplistic to assume without evidence that either underweight or mortality is due to under-nutrition (signifying deficiencies in energy, protein, essential vitamins and minerals). Child stunting and wasting, and mortality is equally if not more likely to be due to infections and illnesses due to insanitary conditions that result in inadequate absorption of nutrients. These in turn may be linked to inadequate maternal health or child care practices, inadequate access to health services, safe water and toilet facilities. Thus, supply of food may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for improvement of a part of the hunger index.
GHI is too simplistic and does not take into account the complexities of the problem but sways the opinion makers in developing countries. GHI is already much accused and abused index which has lost respectability because of its various deficiencies, including the weighting priority and data base that is used. The index is also prone to dramatic change in case of unreliable data of even a single partial indicator. For example, the cause of such a dismal GHI for India is mainly data on child underweight in India, which is worst, just next to Timor-Leste.
Underlying Problems & Solutions
To improve India’s ranking in the GHI, we have to identify the causes of stunting and wasting and to eliminate these causes. Thus the solution is to improve the supply/availability of clean-safe drinking water, improved sanitation, preferably piped sewerage system, septic tanks or pit latrine with slabs, to avoid outbreak of water-borne diseases like diarrhea, dysentery and cholera; and improved personal hygiene. According to WHO, less than 30 percent of households had access to piped drinking water and nearly 60 percent of Indians still practiced open defecation in 2006. We also need better governance of medical facilities in rural areas, providing more effective primary health centers for maternal and child care. Even with respect to food, though per capita availability of cereals has improved, that of pulses has declined from 69 grams per day in 1961 to 39 grams in 2011. Pumping free cereals into a leakage prone system will not improve even calorie intake as these have a near zero price elasticity and low income elasticity.
The need is to directly address these serious issues and not the imposition of simplistic FSB that is driven more by philosophy than by pragmatic problem solving. As there is no free lunch, a huge hike in subsidy would either lead to higher taxes or higher debt or lower capital expenditure. It also detracts attention from the really “hungry” who constitute less than 2% of the population but are dispersed across the country in remote, hilly locations and need to be painstakingly identified and reached directly.
This article appeared under the banner, “A Misnomer Called Food Security,” in the Op Ed page of the Indian Express, on Thursday 1st August, 1913. http://epaper.indianexpress.com/c/1423467 or