Saturday, February 27, 2010

Need for a National Authority on Hunger Elimination

Despite the remarkable progress in the country with high economic growth, impressive food production, advanced technologies and enviable human resources, the country is seriously confronted with the most challenging problem of hosting over 240 million ‘hungry’ people, with 66th position on Global Hunger Index (GHI) among 88 countries in the world. The fact that India could reduce hunger only marginally (about 25%) over a period of 18 years (1990-91 to 2007-08) made the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) Washington to make a statement that ‘India’s performance was lack luster’ on hunger elimination. This reflects badly on the inadequate attention given to ‘hunger’.

The major contributing factor for GHI of 23.7 is the high percentage of underweight children (43.5%) below five years in the country. The most disturbing report that 70% of children between six and 59 months after birth are anemic (3rd National Family Health Survey 2005-06), made the honest Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh to admit frankly that ‘it is a matter of National shame’. A recent report by Dr.Karin Holshof, UNICEF India Representative on the seriousness of the problem with 61 million children fighting under nutrition, is an eye opener. In spite of the schemes on health and nutrition of children, it is estimated that 20% of Indian children (over 25 million) die due to under nutrition during the five years after birth. Already India’s record on the percentage of underweight children is the highest in the world, with Madhya Pradesh topping the list (59.8%), followed by Jharkhand (57.1%), Bihar (56.1%) and Chattisgarh (47.6 %). Out of the 17 Indian States analyzed, four are grouped under ‘serious hunger’ (Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Assam), while 12 are under ‘alarming hunger’ (Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Karnataka, Orissa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Chattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand) ; with Madhya Pradesh alone under the ‘extremely alarming hunger’ category, similar to Ethiopia.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently reported that 1.02 billion people are chronically ‘hungry’ in the world. In the recently convened World Summit on Food Security in Rome, although the attention was focused on the rise in food prices across the world, the summit failed to bring out tangible commitments by rich countries on ‘hunger’ issues. In order to create awareness on the seriousness of chronic ‘hunger’ and solidarity with people who go to bed without food, the Secretary General of United Nations Ben Moon and the Director General of the FAO Jaques Diouf observed a 24 hour fast in November which attracted worldwide attention, but the Indian Government failed to observe any such demonstration in spite of adverse situations in the country. The sad comments were that ‘despite all the promises made concrete actions on hunger has been lacking’ and FAO concluded that ‘in the absence of strong measures another global food crisis cannot be excluded’. The Indian Government has to take note of the adverse situations arising out of climate change exemplified by unprecedented drought and floods which have the potential to increase the number of hungry people.

India with over 1.15 billion population out of which almost 200 million are chronically hungry, with high percentage of children, cannot afford to ignore the problem anymore. The long term implication of the present underweight children below five years will be on the future generation of youth, whose physical and mental health are essential to take up the responsibilities of Nation building activities. For sustaining the developmental activities during the ensuing decades, the children born, say from 2009 – 2010 onwards need utmost care in a holistic way – health, education, environment, character build up and skill development which ensure leadership qualities. In fact, all those born during early 2000s must undergo frequent health checkup for midterm corrections of nutritional disorders. It is well established that ‘good nutrition early in life is a key input for human capital formation, a fundamental factor for sustainable and equitable economic growth’. So, the child care should be the top priority for the Government. It is a daunting task, but acquires National priority as youth are great National asset for ‘India Tomorrow’ for ensuring peaceful life.

Therefore, the attention should be on the most sensitive States like Madhya Prdaesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh to rescue the lives of millions of children with underweight and to prevent the problem in other States too. An effective health and nutrition program for children (and mothers) from the infant to juvenile to youth stages is the need of the hour. A weak youth force will be an impediment for the entire Nation’s progress. It is, therefore, high time that the Honorable Prime Minister personally examines the situation in depth and initiates action to establish a ‘National Authority on Hunger Elimination’ (NAHE), with adequate funds and exclusive powers – administrative and financial and enhanced human resources with the ultimate goal of making India hunger-free by 2020. The NAHE must function as a high power coordinating unit with concerned ministries – food and agriculture, health, education, environment and finance. As the present poverty alleviation programs did not seem to yield the desired result in terms of minimizing ‘hunger’ among millions of the poorest of the poor, the NAHE might be expected to achieve the goal better and in shorter time frame. India should strive hard to get its name erased from the list of GHI of the IFPRI with exemplary time targeted programs. For this, extraordinary political will is the only answer under the dynamic leadership of the Prime Minister.

Dr.V.Rajagopal, Retired Director, CPCRI & Founder of Hunger Elimination and You movement (HEYm), Tirupati, E mail :

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