Why the Economist is wrong on India and hunger: guest post from Swati Narayan

Swati NarayanThe Economist last week ran an article criticizing India’s ‘Right to Food’ legislation. Independent food policy specialist Swati Narayan responds. She also has a piece on the Right to Food on the Guardian’s website today.

The Economist article ‘The Indian Exception’ is timely and asks just the right puzzling questions ― why is India an economic (and cricket) powerhouse, but a nutritional weakling?

I agree with some parts of the diagnosis, especially the need for redistribution. But, the prescription of conditional cash transfers entirely misses the wood for the trees.

So let’s peel the onion ― starting with the outer layers of the prognosis.

Cash or Food or both?
“Giving cash, rather than food itself, would be better. Better still, India should look to international experience and introduce a conditional cash-transfer scheme, such as Brazil’s Bolsa Família, which pays the mother if her children attend school….”

Yes, India can learn much from international experiences — but not blindly. After all, Brazil’s population is only one-sixth that of India’s gargantuan 1.2 billion. Besides, India already has a network of half a million fair price shops to deliver cheap food. All government schools already provide a meal to each child. 

A new cash transfer scheme, which depends on whether children regularly ‘attend’ school, would be a logistical nightmare to implement. And an open invitation to corruption. Bangladesh’s targeted primary education stipends show the dangers of giving power to the petty bureaucracy to act as gate-keepers to determine eligibility, especially when corruption is already high.

R2F 2An unconditional universal cash grant to all families, in addition to existing food transfers, is of course welcome. But the budgetary implications of that would be truly awe-inspiring! Even South Africa, has so far rejected the excellent civil society BIG (Basic Income Grant) proposal as unaffordable.

Also, Bolsa Familia is only one of several integrated initiatives of Brazil’s Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) strategy which rests on the foundation of constitutional guarantees to the ‘right to food’. It includes food banks, community kitchens, school meals, procurement of locally-produced foods to support smallholder farmers, crop insurance etc.

India’s legislation too is a step in this multi-dimensional direction. The draft national food security bill (NFSB)  proposals clearly include a lot more than only cheap food. 

Targeted or Universal?
“…learn from schemes that target those who need help…”

Maybe it is prudent for some small countries to target limited pockets of hunger. But what do you do when three-quarters of your population needs help. Poverty is widespread in India. 80 percent of Indians live on less than 20 rupees (less than 50 cents) per day. Food insecurity is even more diffused — as malnutrition has seeped into affluent families. Doesn’t it make logical sense and wouldn’t it be more cost-effective then to have a universal food security programme?

Unfortunately, the current NFSB proposal of ‘90 percent of country dwellers and 50 percent of city folk’ is not universal – but remains targeted. Not only does it exclude the more affluent on top of the food chain, but also creates two superfluous sub-divisions within eligible families. So far, it seems to have missed a historical opportunity to entirely do away with targeting, which plagues the current food distribution system with millions of genuinely needy families excluded. 

Don’t Blame Mothers
“Bad practice plays some part—notably a reluctance to breastfeed babies.”

Yes, in a few pockets of rural India, families do hold medieval superstitions against breastfeeding babies with the India R2Fcolostrum (protein and antibody-rich milk produced around the moment of birth).

But it is perverse to blame mothers. Children need to be fed several times a day. But most impoverished rural mothers work all day with no crèche facilities or the luxury to take breaks. As Mrs Khan rightly points out, “Out in the fields, it is terrible.”

The NFSB does propose wide-ranging benefits for mothers — cash for 6 months before and after birth, take-home rations and breastfeeding counselling.

Revive Agriculture
“farming has not shared in the same dazzling success as the rest of the economy”

That is an understatement. Indian agriculture is in an unprecedented state of disrepair as symbolised by the wave of farmer suicides in the last 15 years.  Besides, 40 percent of the rural population is effectively landless  – i.e. they don’t own any land apart from their homesteads. So sustainable elimination of hunger cannot only rely on food schemes, but also requires the effective implementation of land reforms, minimum wages, farmer subsidies and a host of other complementary initiatives.

The draft legislation does have a few gems on this front — from promoting minimum support prices for small farmers across states and the production and consumption of nutritious and affordable coarse millets.

Strengthen, Don’t Write Off
“Such a programme would hugely expand the terminally dysfunctional PDS.”

Yes, it is no secret that India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is plagued with corruption and often doesn’t deliver. But it is nowhere near “terminally dysfunctional.” States like Chhattisgarh, Tamilnadu and Kerala have shown how it can be turned around. The NFSB also details a range of systematic reforms. And plans are apparently afoot to repair the state run nurseries.

And it is here that the most promising aspect of the NFSB comes in. It calls for the creation of a new decentralised administrative cadre across India’s 627 districts for redressing grievances, with a single-minded focus on monitoring food schemes.  This may well be the next generation in the evolution of rights-based legislation, 2.0.

Conclusion? Don’t write off India’s food security legislation. With more than a quarter of the world’s hungry living here, every grain counts.

And here’s a more in depth (8 page) briefing from Swati on Why India is Losing Its War on Hunger.

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9 Responses to “Why the Economist is wrong on India and hunger: guest post from Swati Narayan”
  1. Aditi

    While I agree with many of your arguments, this particular comment is not something I could agree with. “in a few pockets of rural India, families do hold medieval superstitions against breastfeeding babies with the colostrum…” Being involved an extensive survey of malnutrition in the 100 worst districts in India currently, the data tells us that lack of breastfeeding colostrum as well as exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months is a pervasive problem across all districts. That being said, I also agree that the problem there has more to do with how hard behavior change is than with the Food Security bill!

  2. Asif Dowla

    Swati links a 15 year old report to claim that the Primary school stipend system is corrupt. True it was corrupt when it was implemented through in-kind transfers of wheat. The government realized that and turned it into conditional cash-transfer. So, in a way, it is in line with with The Economist is recommending. Bangladesh is already there!

  3. Catherine Dom

    I wonder, with 40% landlessness surely land reform is not the only thing and there needs to be other things to help people to move to non-farming options? But that may be what you mean with the “host of complementary options”.

  4. To be exact – quoting from NFHS3 – about half of ALL women (no matter what levels of society, rich, poor, rural society) give prelacteal feeds ie give babies something other than breastmilk in the first three days of life. Amongst the highest wealth quintile it is 46% Urban 50% Rural 59%; in total 56% give milk other than breastmilk; than there are those who give honey (25%, 19%sugar water etc etc)So babies here are starting off life at a huge disadvantage. Hunger and malnutrtion in India is clearly more complex than the public distribution system, the national rural employment guarantee schemes and ICDS. It’s about quantity but ALSO about quality of food, poor vegetarian diets don’t help; and womean eat last and east least.

  5. Kolleen Bouchane

    India’s right to food legislation (as well as its Right to Information legislation) are critical to giving people control over their development and the development of their country. And while they are not perfect – who ever thought they would be a panacea? – I await the article from the economist ten years from now that makes the links between this commitment to the rights of people and the progress made on hunger.

    Although I think you adequately address the main points – I have a special grievance with “Bad practice plays some part—notably a reluctance to breastfeed babies.”

    In a context of extreme poverty even the idea of ‘reluctance’ is a joke. Access to proper information, health care, and alternatives to breastfeeding play so large a role in these contexts that the structural violence of poverty is often conflated with ‘cultural practices’ or ‘reluctance’ or ‘noncompliance.’ It’s a convenient way of shifting blame to those who suffer from a system that is broken.

    Fact. If I am ‘reluctant’ to breast feed my baby will not starve. Is the problem really ‘reluctance’ then or a set of options and choices made so narrow by abject poverty that one ‘false move’ such as being at work when the baby is hungry or not knowing how to coax milk out of the breast or an infection in the breast or a belief that breastfeeding is not a good idea – can mean that a baby dies?

    This is not superstition at work – this is an economic order that necessitates that people be reminded that because without food we die – we have a right to it – breasts or no breasts.

  6. Aditi: Thanks. Good point and do share your research when completed.

    Asif: Sorry, the wrong link was posted. Its http://tinyurl.com/6aemdnq (slide 17-18) and http://tinyurl.com/62648yn. Better?

    Catherine: Yes, for starters the rural non-farm sector needs to be revived – especially labour-intensive agro-processing and traditional crafts.

    Sarah: Yes, the stats among the highest wealth quintile are telling. But Kolleen also points to important structural issues esp with limited rural health and childcare support. The draft NFSA does mention breastfeeding counselling and cash grants for mothers. What then are additional scalable solutions?

    Kolleen: Well said. Structural violence causing hunger is the perfect analogy.

  7. Asif Dowla

    @Swati: Thanks for the links. I will quote you,”it is no secret that India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) is plagued with corruption and often doesn’t deliver. But it is nowhere near “terminally dysfunctional.” If we are going to use existence of corruption as an argument not to intervene, we all might pack up and go home.

  8. Siddhartha

    Most of the communities in the entire Indian sub-continent(such as Bengali) are succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty'(Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is genuinely regret ed or ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, bad work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold(supported by some lame excuses). Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour (values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting children those are born out of ignorance, extreme poverty. It seems that all of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in their own attitude, involve themselves in ‘Production of Space’ (Henri Lefebvre), an intense attachment with the society at large – one different pathway has to create to overcome inherent ‘hopeless’ psyche; decent, rich Politics will definitely come up. – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101, India.

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