When Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the first time unfurled the national flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi, he promised to turn the infamous Kalahandi hunger belt in western Orissa into a food bowl. If only Vajpayee had made a serious attempt to wipe out hunger from Kalahandi, and follow it up with a nationwide programme to feed the hungry millions, the BJP wouldn't have been in a pitiable condition it now finds itself in.

And when President Pratibha Patil reiterated the government's resolve to bring in a National Food Security Act in a bid to provide every hungry family with 25 kg of foodgrains priced at Rs.3 a kilo, I certainly felt excited. After all, 62 years after Independence, the government finally makes a promise to feed the hungry nation. For the 320 million who are officially categorised as hungry, nothing could be more heartening. And for another 600 million, who are able to spend less than Rs.20 a day, there appeared to be some hope. And with the new government barely in the saddle, mandarins in the Food and Agriculture Ministry and in the Planning Commission have swung into action, working overtime to give shape to the promise made by Congress in its election manifesto.

But if what I read in the newspapers is any indication, I now have all the reasons to be worried, rather than excited. If the early signs continue, there will be little hope for the hungry; instead they will continue to live and die in hunger.

What pains me is to learn that even the Right to Food campaign, which has fought several battles to ensure that food reaches the poor, is not thinking beyond the PDS to address the real causes of hunger. There is no reason for the civil society to shy away from the onerous task by saying that we have to only take care of entitlements. I can understand the government trying to say so, but that a section of the civil society is also trying to behave like the government is something that does not auger well for the poor and hungry.

Modelled on failure

Home to the world's largest hungry population, India has a record on hunger that is worse than that of nearly 25 sub-Saharan African countries. India is ranked 66th among 88 vulnerable countries in the Global Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research institute, and none of its States is categorised under 'low hunger' or 'moderate hunger category'. And let us not forget, the abysmally low ranking of India in the Global Hunger Index is despite the PDS. The scheme caters to 65 million families below the poverty line (BPL) and 115 million other families above the poverty line (APL), and is supposed to act as a safety net for the vulnerable sections of our society.

If the PDS had been even partially effective, there should have been no reason for Punjab to be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam.

 •  Starvation persists in Orissa
 •  Hunger affects attendance

If you consider each family to comprise on average five persons, the PDS - on paper - meets the food requirement of 900 million people. If this is true, I see no reason why the country should have the largest population of hungry in the world. If the PDS had been even partially effective, there should have been no reason for Punjab - and for that matter Kerala, the best performing States in terms of hunger - to be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam. Extending the same failed PDS to more families, or introducing a revamped PDS is therefore unlikely to make any meaningful difference to the plight of the hungry and malnourished.

But this is precisely what the new National Food Security Act (NFSA) proposes to do. Modelled along the lines of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Act does not see beyond the 'rights' of the poor, and is more or less blind to whether these rights are being protected by government schemes. The success of the NREGS itself is still debatable; we all know is mired in corruption and large-scale siphoning-off of funds intended for the unemployed poor. But that has not stopped the NFSA from being drawn on more or less on the same pattern.

On the price and quantity fronts too, the proposal is weak. At present, the government provides 35 kg of food grains, including wheat and rice, to 65.2 million families classified as living below the poverty line (BPL). These subsidised rations are made available at a price of Rs 4.15 per kg for wheat and Rs 5.65 per kg for rice. For the 24.3 million families classified under the Antyodya scheme (also part of the BPL category), the price of these grains is further reduced to Rs.2 for wheat and Rs.3 for rice. Thus, what the NFSA proposes is to provide the grains at an even lower price than in the past, but also in the process reduce the quantity of grain that is given through the subsidy.

By reducing the quantum of grains given, the National Food Security Act would therefore entail less financial burden on the government by an estimated Rs.5000 crores. And the food requirement would be drastically reduced from the existing 27 million tonnes to about 20 million tonnes, and the annual subsidy outgo would also be lowered. It surely is a win-win situation for the government. But how is this going to make an already underfed people able to eat more? That goal, it now appears, will remain a dream.

Zero Hunger

Feeding the vulnerable sections, and that too in a sustained manner on long-term basis, is only possible if the government evolves what I call a Zero Hunger programme. I suggest a 5-point programme to ensure Zero Hunger:

  • Revive agriculture on the lines of sustainability, by restoring soil health and the natural resource base by bringing in low-external-input, sustainable farming practices.

  • Provide farmers with a fixed monthly income, incorporating the minimum support price. For the poorest of the poor households receiving micro-finance, ensure that the interest rate is reduced from the existing 18-48 per cent to a maximum of 4 per cent.

  • Disband PDS except for food entitlements for the Antyodya families. Replace this with Foodgrain Banks at the village level on the lines of the traditional gola system of food security still existing in Bihar and east India.

  • Export of foodgrains should be allowed only when the country's total population is adequately fed.

  • International trade, including Free Trade Agreements, should not be allowed to play havoc with domestic agriculture and food security.

All of this is possible, provided the political leadership demonstrates a vision to redesign agriculture, food processing, rural development, international trade and food security in an integrated manner.