For four years, the government dithered on the proposed national food security bill. From the Planning Commission to the Ministry Agriculture and then to the Ministry of Food and Consumer Affairs, the bill continued to be tossed around. But as the 2014 elections are nearing, the urgency to bring in a legislation that provides for a legal guarantee to reach food to the hungry becomes all too apparent.  

It is expected to be a game changer. The government thinks the food security bill will vote the UPA back into power.

Whether the bill brings the UPA-III into saddle is a different question but what is more important is whether the proposed bill will address the problem of hunger and malnutrition in a manner that in the long run it significantly reduces the population of hungry. After all, in a country, which has the largest population of hungry in the world, and which as per the Global Hunger Index ranks 66th among 105 countries, the food law will only serve its purpose if the number of hungry gradually comes down.   

The bill promises to provide 5 kg of rice/wheat/millets at Rs 3/2/1 per kg for each of the beneficiary. It entails to reach 67 per cent of the population, 75 per cent in the rural areas and 50 per cent in the urban areas. Costing Rs 1.31 lakh crore, the food bill prescribes three schedules: 1) issue price of subsidised foodgrains that can be revised after 3 years; 2) lays down nutritional standards for mid-day meals, take home rations for children below 3 years; and 3) revitalisation of agriculture by bringing in necessary agrarian reforms, and pushing research and development.

All this looks promising. But considering that 145 lakh farmers quit agriculture in the five year period between 2004-05 and 2009-2010, and another 50 lakh jobs were lost in the manufacturing sector in the same period, it is quite apparent that the pressure on the Food Bill will further increase as the number of hungry will grow with every passing year. Unless the food bill provides a roadmap to build up the capacity of each to ensure its own food security, I think it may be practically impossible to sustain the massive feeding programme in the years to come. With policy makers not looking beyond 2014 elections, it is an opportunity lost.

As the new harvest flows in, the question that needs to be asked is why acute hunger prevails in the villages that actually produce food? How come a large population of the hungry reside in those very areas that constitute the country’s food bowl? I fail to understand why in Punjab, where food rots in the open, almost 10 per cent of the population should go to bed hungry? Why is that Punjab, the best-performing state in terms of addressing hunger, should be ranked below Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam in the Global Hunger Index?

Instead of sending search teams to 22 countries that have food security programmes, the Govt will do well to look inwards, and will find sustainable answers that can be easily replicated. Ironically, the answer lies in the hunger belt of Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput in western Orissa. Many years ago, I had stumbled on a cluster of villages in the heart of Bolangir district, which had not witnessed hunger for nearly three decades. My colleagues have since then travelled to numerous other villages throughout the country, which have adopted a socially workable ‘sharing and caring’ approach to remove hunger. If these villages can do it, I see no reason why a majority of the six lakh villages cannot become hunger-free.

In Bolangir, or in rural Pune, some villages have built traditional but small foodgrain banks. Those who are poor and jobless find solace in these grain banks. They are provided an adequate quantity of grains on credit, with the promise that they will return it in kind (along with a small portion as interest) at the time of the harvest when they find work. This cycle of ‘sharing and caring’ has built quite a sizeable foodgrain bank in these hunger-free villages. All that is needed is to train women self-help groups and NGOs in other villages, and food security will become the responsibility of the people.

Making villages hunger-free will also limit the dependence on the unreliable PDS and thereby reduce the mounting food subsidy. It has to be backed by policies that ensure that agriculture is not sacrificed for the sake of industry, mining and exports. As Hivre bazaar in Ahmednagar district in central Maharashtra has shown, the answer lies in giving control over jan, jal and jungle to the people. With a per capita income of Rs 30,000, the village has more than 60 millionaires.

If villages become self-reliant in food security, much of the dependence on the public distribution system would be drastically reduced. It can then be made more efficient and better targeted at the urban poor. After all, in a country which has 6.4 lakh villages, there is no reason why a programme to ensure food security at the village-level itself cannot be launched. In my understanding, the National Advisory Council as well as the concerned ministries forgot to draw a lesson from the age-old Chinese adage: If you want to feed a man for a day, give him fish. But if you want to feed him for lifetime, teach him how to catch fish.

At the same time, there can be nothing more criminal for any hungry nation to export its staple food. It is the primary responsibility of the government, as enshrined in the Directive Principles, to ensure that every citizen is well-fed. Unfortunately what is not being realised is the declining fall in per capita availability of foodgrains matches the availability at the time of Bengal famine in 1943. This year Govt has exported 90 lakh tonnes of rice and another 95lakh tonnes of wheat. How can any sensible nation justify food exports at a time when millions of people are living in hunger? This means that fighting hunger is not only about distribution food but also integrating agriculture production, storage, rural development and trade policies in a manner that people are provided with control over natural resources on the one hand and cheaper imports are not allowed to sweep away farmers on the other. Unfortunately, this has not been clearly spelled out in the food bill.