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Through Cloudy Glasses: Viewing Food Insecurity from the Top

Food Insecurity, Vulnerability and Human Rights Failure edited by Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, Shabd S Acharya and Benjamin Davis;

Economic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200835book reviewThrough Cloudy Glasses: Viewing Food Insecurity from the TopV M RaoFood Insecurity, Vulnerability and Human Rights Failureedited by Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, Shabd S Acharya and Benjamin Davis;Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007; pp xxv + 368, price not mentioned.This book is an outcome of a re-search project undertaken by UnitedNations University (UNU) and the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) in collabora-tion with the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. It contains 13 papers arranged in three parts. PartI contains five papers dealing with policies, safety nets, other measures for protecting the vulnerable groups and the experiences sofar. The countries covered are India, China, South Pacific island countriesand member-countries of the South African Development Community. These countries provide an interesting cross section with a severe incidence of food insecurity to begin with but have widely varying success in removing it.Part II has four papers exploring the link between gender and hunger. This is a complex area of intra-household distri-bution of food available to a household in which women play an important role but,often,end up as the worst victims of food insecurity.The four papers in PartIII take a look at the emerging campaigns to treat entitle-ment to food security as a basic right and the role they are likely to play in the battle against food insecurity. There is much to commend in these papers. In particular, researchers in food security will find the papers very useful for identifying priority issues, understanding the methodological complexities and achieving a workable balance between analytical rigour and the limitations of data. While these are tempt-ing areas to comment on, we choose to focus this review on alarming signals which the book provides about the weak prospects for eliminating food insecurity in the near future. Consider the following excerpts:Referring to the UN Millennium Decla-ration of 2000 to reduce hunger in the world by half by 2015, the book observesIf the developing regions continue to re-duce hunger at the current pace, ...none will reach this goal…Without rapid progress in reducing hunger, achieving other Millen-nium Development Goals related to poverty reduction, education, child mortality, mater-nal health and disease will be difficult, if not impossible (pXVII).It is necessary to remember that 2015 is now only seven years away.The book warns that adequate availa-bility of food at the household level does not ensure that it reaches all members in an equitable manner; deeply embedded social constructs adversely impact women’s economic contribution to society as well as their nutritional and healthstatus… only when… women begin to feel empowered and equal in status to men, will the social stranglehold of gender disparities become merely an economic issue with simpler solutions to the problem (p XXII).Referring to the approach based on treating hunger as an entitlement failure, the book chooses to be cautious rather than effusive: The study… illustrates the need for a vibrant civil society group, without which the court alone may not be of much help...(in making the right to food a reality)…we reiterate the need for looking at the problem of hunger from a combination of economic, social and political perspectives. These dimensions are intertwined, making it necessary for a variety of actors to pull together as a unit to fight against hunger (pp XXIV andXXV ). It must be the mother of all paradoxes that the campaign against hunger which started several decades back with support and generous funding from the stalwarts of developed countries should remain so indecisive about its strategy and pros-pects. While the scenarios differ across developing countries, India presents an interesting case and even suggests a model explaining persistence of food insecurity that may be applicable to many developing countries. Our attempt is to outline a model capturing the essential features of the food insecurity scenario of India. We may mention that the perspec-tive offered by the book is based on academic research on the economic dimen-sions of hunger across regions, the experi-ences of international organisations in their forays into the social and political dimen-sions of the problem, and key messages ema-nating from the work of civil society organi-sations at the grass-roots level (p XXV). India has ample material on these ingredients to construct a model. While our outline is brief and bare, it draws on the insights provided by these materials without going into details.The Indian ScenarioThe Indian campaign against hunger can be dated to the early 1970s with a dramatic breakthrough in production of rice and wheat, cessation of imports of foodgrains and an end to dependence on foreign aid.Simultaneously, the public distribution system (PDS) was expanded to cover rural areas. The schemes like employment guar-antee were implemented on a large scale to give income support to the hungry and several programmes were initiated to take care of basic needs like education, health, nutrition with special schemes for vulner-able groups.An outstanding achievement of the Indian campaign is the elimination of mass hunger like famines. This has favourable linked effects like stabilisation of rural livelihoods, political stability and recogni-tion of India in the international arena as a potential economic power. It is easy to underestimate the effects of elimination of famines as the last three generations in India have had no experience of the catastrophic consequences of famine. Considerable progress has been made in eliminating hunger in normal times due to
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW may 17, 200837ofavailable but currently underutilised institutional capacities.ConclusionsAmartya Sen has pointed out that demo-cracy in India responds to mass hunger highlighted by the media, but not to latenthunger, and that if poverty was contagious, there would have been more concerted and decisive efforts to eradicate poverty. It seems interesting to extend these propositions to argue that “cloudy glasses” is a syndrome and not merely a handicap in Indian democracy’s eyesight. Degradation of land and water resources has now reached a point where agricul-ture and the Indian economy as a whole can suffer irreversible damage. Small and marginal farmers are acknowledged as being nonviable by none other than the prime minister. Uncontrolled urban growth and decay could be flashpoints for severe crises in the urban agglomerations spread over India. In the euphoria about accelerated growth, we are neglecting the warning from experts within India and outside that India is drifting towards be-coming a “failed state”.Simultaneously, those outside the main-stream are entering it via the economic path through participation in growth or through the political path of getting mobilised for agitations. Dalits, minorities and lower castes accounting for huge numbers in population have now begun to count politically. Democracy in India has neither the long-term perspective nor effectivepolicies to meet these challenges. Populism is too flimsy a tool to stem the crisis.Therulingelites can no more enjoy the luxury of beingostricheswiththeir heads comfortably buried in the sand! It may seem we have strayed miles away from food insecurity. Oursubmissionis that food insecurity is a symptom of a deeper life-threatening disease.Attempts to tackle the symptom without tracing its roots would only worsen the disease and drag the country closer to disaster. This is not a counsel of despair. Schemes like thePDS and employment guarantee and those for basic needs which have become today synonyms for populism can transform rural society, if only the top tier in the government wakes up to its crucial role and responsibilities towards the poor.The green revolution is a good example of what can be achieved when the political commitment at the top makes effective use of the large pool of experts in the government system and of the depart-mental structures connecting the top to the grassroots. If procedures are worked out to make the top tier in the government accountable to the nation – through, say, the National Development Council – we might be able to take a giant step towards more meaningful development including food security for

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