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A misnomer called food security

The proposed bill makes false promises. The need is to directly address problems of drinking water availability,sanitation,maternal health and childcare

Written by Charan Singh |
August 1, 2013 10:16:00 pm

The proposed bill makes false promises. The need is to directly address problems of drinking water availability,sanitation,maternal health and childcare

The Food Security Bill (2013,FSB) promulgated recently by an ordinance is expected to be debated in 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 doorstep delivery of subsidised food to nearly 75 per cent of the rural and 50 per cent of the urban population. It also seeks to empower women in households. The thrust of the criticism against the FSB has been on issues like procurement,storage,transportation,distribution,identification of beneficiaries and pricing of foodgrains covered under the scheme.

The FSB is motivated by two significant facts. First,disturbing statistics: according to the National Family Health Survey 2005-06,43.5 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight,33 per cent of women in the age group of 15-49 have a body mass index below normal and 78.9 per cent of children in the age group of 6-35 months are anaemic. Second,the influential Global Hunger Index (GHI) developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI),which has successfully galvanised policymakers across the world. The 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 term “hunger” itself is very confusing and means different things to different organisations and policymakers. First and foremost,it evokes images of the extreme discomfort associated with lack of food. On the other hand,the United Nations Development Programme 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.

The GHI takes into account,in equal weights,undernourishment,child underweight and child mortality. The indicator,undernourishment,is based on the share of the 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 an unhealthy environment. It is much too simplistic to assume,without evidence,that either being underweight or mortality is due to undernutrition (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 childcare 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 the improvement of a part of the hunger index.

The GHI is too simplistic and does not take into account the complexities of the problem,but sways opinion-makers in developing countries. It is already a much accused and abused index which has lost respectability because of its various deficiencies,including the weighting priority and database 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,which is the worst,next only to Timor-Leste.

To improve India’s ranking on the GHI,we have to identify the causes of stunting and wasting and to eliminate them. 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 the outbreak of waterborne diseases like diarrhoea,dysentery and cholera; and improved personal hygiene. According to the WHO,less than 30 per cent of households had access to piped drinking water and nearly 60 per cent of Indians still practised open defecation in 2006. We also need better governance of medical facilities in rural areas,providing more effective primary health centres for maternal and childcare. Even with respect to food,though per capita availability of cereals has improved,that of pulses has declined from 69 grammes per day in 1961 to 39 grammes 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 a simplistic FSB that is driven more by ideology than 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 per cent of the population but are dispersed across the country in remote,hilly locations and need to be painstakingly identified and reached directly.

Virmani,former chief economic advisor,Government of India,and former executive director,IMF,heads Chintanlive.org. Singh is the RBI chair professor of economics,IIM,Bangalore. Views are personal

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