India ranked 94 in the global hunger index according to the 2020 record among 107 countries. The main aim is to launch the ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme within a year. It has been decided to launch the scheme as soon as point-of-sale machines will be made available at all the Public Distribution System (PDS) shops across the country. This will provide benefits to the people especially migrant workers, said late Ram Vilas Paswan, Former Union food and public distribution minister. Previously, when the Global Hunger Index (GHI), 2019 report was released the country had a food stock of more than 68 million tonnes.
Currently, India ranked 102 among 117 countries and the food stock went up to 70 million tonnes.
To elaborate more about GHI then its score is determined on a 100-point scale and mainly based on four parameters:
• The proportion of undernourished in a population
• The proportion of children under the age of five suffering from wasting (less weight in proportion to their height)
• The proportion of children under five suffering from stunting (low height in proportion to their age)
• The mortality rate of children under five
Countries with a score within the range of 20-34.9 are considered to be grappling with acute hunger. High-income countries and those with very low populations were excluded from evaluation.
The National Food Security Act, 2013 is to ensure food security for the most vulnerable and deprived communities. Ration distribution through fair price shops, mid-day meal programmes at schools, nutrition, and maternity benefit programmes for children and pregnant mothers at anganwadis fall within the Act.
But here the question arises: Why India is still battling hunger?
In Poverty and Famines, Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner, introduced the idea of ‘exchange entitlement decline’ as a reason for starvation and famines. It is characterized by an adverse shift in the exchange value of endowments for food. It essentially means the occupation a section of people is engaged in is not remunerative enough to buy adequate food.
Though Sen postulated this theory to describe reasons for famines, we may look at it to understand the hunger situation in our country. Sen talked about four categories of entitlement: ‘Production-based entitlement’ (growing food); ‘trade-based entitlement’ (buying food); ‘own-labor entitlement’ (working for food); and ‘inheritance and transfer entitlement’ (being given food by others).
He suggested that each one face starvation if their full entitlement set does not provide them with enough support food. Though we have surplus food, most small and marginal holdings farmers are losing access to food. It will be easier to understand the reasons for hunger in India through Sen’s categorization of entitlements.
In India, agriculture production from small and marginal holdings in either motionless or declining due to reasons such as reduced soil fertility, fragmented lands, or fluctuating market price of farm produce. Almost 50 million households in India are dependent on these small and marginal holdings.
Though we have surplus food, most small and marginal farming households do not produce enough food grains for their year-round consumption.
Second, the relative income of one section of people has been on the decline. This has adverse effects on their capacity to buy adequate food, especially when food prices have been on the rise.
Third, the kind of work a section of people has been doing is less remunerative or there is less opportunity to get remunerative works. Fourth, the public distribution system (PDS) of the state is not functioning well or is not accessible to everyone.
The emaciated rural livelihoods sector and lack of income opportunities other than the farm sector have contributed heavily to the growing joblessness in rural areas. The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 revealed that rural unemployment stood at a concerning 6.1 percent, which was the highest since 1972-73.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA) continues to be the lone rural job programme that, too, had been weakened over the years through great delays in payments and non-payments, ridiculously low wages, and reduced scope of employment due to high bureaucratic control.
What can be done?
A multi-angled technique is required to deal with the crisis.
Here are four approaches towards it:
• Production of crops should get increased, especially by small and marginal farmers with support from the Union government and priority to small and marginal is essential.
• The government may create provisions to supply cooked nutritious food to the vulnerable section of the society. A model of the cheap canteen, which provides cooked food to vulnerable sections of the society for just Rs 15-20, is being successfully run by Left parties during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in many parts of West Bengal.
JadavpurJyotideviShramajeevi Canteen, for example, has been running for more than 200 days. This model can be replicated by governments or other agencies. This has to be done in addition to the existing provisions of healthy diets from Anganwadi and schools through mid-day meals for children, mothers, and students. Also recently cities like Mumbai and Goa have launched a fridge that will support not let sleep anyone without food.
• Rural employment schemes such as MGNREGA should be given a boost to increase employment and wages. Several organizations and individuals working under the scheme have suggested that the guaranteed work-days be increased to 200 and that commensurate wages be given by the minimum agricultural wages of the states.
• Access to food grains under the PDS needs to be streamlined by simplifying technical processes and reducing Adhaar-related glitches.
This is the right time to universalize PDS: COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of the targeted nature of the scheme.