By Gaurav Bhattacharya
Today, India is striding forward as on of the fastest growing economies in the world. At the same time, it is indicative of one the most unequal development models for its rural population. Given that we have completed twenty-five years of reform based growth, we should look back on how the country has done in terms of providing inclusiveness on its food-based policies.
The Data Story
As per the studies of the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are home to about one-quarter of globally underfed people. There are 194.6 million undernourished people barely surviving. This number is the highest in the list of underfed countries. As for statistics, among the 76 fastest developing economies on the Global Hunger Index, India ranks 55th. Hunger and malnutrition indicators are worse than even those of Ghana, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The burden of food insecurity among the rural population has been a growing threat. A major part of the population faces exclusion due to the inaccessibility of food grains and the bias in food schemes. If we analyse the food and nutritional needs of the rural poor, we observe that four factors cause major concern:
1) Access to food
2) Agricultural productivity gap
3) Inequality in distribution of ration
4) Economic vulnerability
The tribal belts in some of the most food insecure states of Rajasthan and Jharkhand have almost no access to food. They are faced with prolonged periods of chronic starvation and hunger. In the tribal belts of South-Eastern Rajasthan, almost half the eligible households do not receive their entitled subsidised ration. Even the ones that do receive the ration, face major delays in getting them.
In a recently released joint report by Rozi Roti Adhikar Abhiyan and Suchna Evam Rozgar ka Adhikar Abhiyan, only 47.88 percent of eligible households in Rajasthan have access to regular ration.
This survey was conducted in one village in each of the seven districts of the South-Eastern region. In the hunger affected Manatu in Palamau district of Jharkhand, severely starving communities get together for public hearings to discuss the deaths caused by starvation. This is a common sight in some of the backward blocks in Jharkhand. Many communities facing these issues have barely had a meal in days.
Are Welfare Schemes Enough?
Right now, India is moving towards a cash transfer policy in the food security agenda; primarily, with the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the Public Distribution Schemes. However, first, we need to evaluate whether the policy has enough impact evidence. Presently there are 8 crore children (below the ages of 6 years) enrolled under the ICDS-Anganwadi scheme and 90.2 crore beneficiaries under the PDS mandate. Going by the data, we can see that the PDS system has an exclusion error of about 61%. Additionally, almost 2 crore children, under the Anganwadi scheme, are severely malnourished.
Although we do have welfare schemes targeted towards the rural poor, a majority of them suffer inequalities and biases.
The National Food Security Act of 2013 mandated that the PDS schemes provide subsidised ration to eligible households. However, it suffers from major leakages and biases. The collection of ration never happens from the actual depot. Instead, locally run shops carry the process out. Identification of beneficiaries is done only by the state. The Panchayati Raj Institutions and local Gram Sabha have no say in the process. The guidelines for a fair price shop license are poorly regulated. Also, there is no mention of a designated location for the ration shop in a village.
The Way Forward
Thus, before replacing the entire ration system, the existing biases in delivery and distribution models need to be eliminated. Financial sustainability in the food security agenda can only be procured when communities have proper access to welfare entitlement schemes. This means that first, an eligible household should be able to receive its full ration.
Today in India, inequality is one of the major reasons for increased vulnerability among the rural poor. This is not only in terms of income disparity and poorer wealth distribution patterns, but also in terms of implementation of several pro-poor schemes.
As per a study conducted by Oxfam, if India eliminates inequality from its development model by 2019, the country could lift nearly ninety million people from the poverty trap. But then again, is poverty the only criteria for wealth?
There are several villages in Rajasthan and Jharkhand where communities have optimal wealth indicators but have no access to food. Starvation and hunger are not defined as ‘shortage of food’. Instead, they are represented as a particular section of the community not having access to food. Today, we need policies that advocate for a ‘right to equality’-based development agenda with increased community participation and inclusiveness.
Gaurav Bhattacharya is a rural development fellow, associated to the fellowship programme hosted by State Bank of India. For the past one year, he has been staying and working in the tribal belts of South-eastern Rajasthan to understand the concept of Hunger, Starvation and Food security through evaluation of state/center governance mandates and welfare policies.