Lessons from Brazil’s Zero Hunger

By Anurodh Lalit Jain

As India’s parliamentarians disrupted the Parliament or so called ”Temple of Democracy”, the much anticipated National Food Security Bill was put on back burner at the mercy of next Parliament session. Consequently, millions of Indian will continue to sleep empty stomach, tossing & turning all night dreaming for the day when eating food will not be a luxury anymore. Ironically, India presents a unique case of a country that on one hand has the largest number of hungry people and on the other hand has inventory of food stocks rotting in the granaries. As per World Food Program (WFP) “India is home to about 25 percent of the world’s hungry poor. Although the country grows enough food for its people, pockets of hunger remain.” Another estimate by Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reveals that out of 868 million undernourished people worldwide, 217 million undernourished people live in India. The proposed National Food Security Bill is a step in the right direction to bridge the inequality in distribution of food by assuring sufficient quantity & quality of food grain to the citizens.

Harvesting in a farm

It is universally accepted that hunger remains number one cause of death in the world & India is worst affected by this problem as the country is home to largest number of undernourished people. Hunger is co-related to nutrition in that prolonged hunger can lead to malnutrition, which will have an adverse affect on cognitive and motor development of the affected citizens. These adverse changes also depress the educational & learning ability of the child thus leading to a negative impact on nation’s economic growth. As per WFP “Economists estimate that every child whose physical and mental development is stunted by hunger & malnutrition stands to lose 5-10 percent in lifetime earnings.” The Food Security Bill will allow distribution of food grain to two third of eligible households at an affordable price & help tackle this acute problem India is facing for years.

Critics of the NFSB often point to the heavy leakages in the public distribution system that make this bill less efficient and often call it a waste of resources. Additionally, some of them estimate that this program will immensely overburden the economy that is already going through turbulent times. However, those critics should be alarmed by the World Bank’s estimate, which calculates that malnutrition knocks off at least 3% (Rs 76,000 Crores) of the country’s GDP. Secondly, a lot of over assumed cost associated with the implementation of other welfare schemes such as mid-day meal, ICDS scheme, maternity benefits etc in the Food Security Bill are notional as these schemes are already operational. With the existing PDS & other schemes already in place, the addition food subsidy should cost approx Rs 24,000 Crores per annum to the exchequer.

Other critics of the NFSB accentuated that faster economic growth rather Food Security Bill will help reduce malnutrition. However, if economic growth were to reduce malnutrition then states like Gujarat would have been ranked higher in Human Development Indicators. A closer look at the HDI data revels that despite the high economic growth enjoyed by the state, a high rate of malnutrition still prevails. In Gujarat, 45% of the Children are undernourished. 36% of Women have BMI less than 18.5 and 61% of the ST women fall under the undernourished category. Finally, incidence of poverty is as high as 50% in rural Gujarat. Alternatively, China has already achieved its target on malnutrition and under-five child mortality rate with economic growth that was not only fastest but also broad-based to include health, sanitation and small holder production.

Similarly, countries like Brazil have made significant leaps in overcoming hunger by providing Food Security to the citizens. Brazil’s Fome Zero or Zero Hunger program was initiated by the government in 2003 with an objective to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty in the country. Based on pillars of conditional cash transfer, school meals & strengthening family agriculture, Fome Zero program has been able to reduce poverty, provide food security & reduce hunger. Within 5 years of this program, Brazil’s child mortality rate was reduced by 13 points and 20 million people came above poverty line. Although India and China demonstrated better economic growth than Brazil in last decade, Brazil surpassed both the countries in reducing poverty & increasing food security for its citizen.  Notably, Bolsa Família or the conditional cash transfer program covering around 12 million families living in poverty is considered the flagship of Fome Zero. This program linked the transfer of financial benefit to the basic access rights of health, food, education and social assistance. Fome Zero’s success was possible due to strong government’s commitment & participation of civil societies to fight against hunger. Secondly the program used multi-sector coordination to achieve the goal. This included promotion of the different health services and nutrition education, access to safe drinking water and sanitation programs, school meal program, enhanced food production & household income generation initiatives.

No doubt that the Food Security Bill needs more clarity on public distribution, grievance redressal system or for provision of fortified food etc. There is also a need to include detail discussion on sanitation, health, and increased farm production in the ambit of Food Security. However, this is a remarkable initiative by the UPA government to bring people out of hunger and undernourishment. Bible verse about feeding hungry quotes “if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then you will have light in the dark, and your night will be as the full light of the sun.” National Food Security Bill is an opportunity to bring those millions of citizens out of starvation darkness by offering them affordable & healthy food & leading the nation to a prolific sun shining environment.

Author is a Social Healthcare Analyst and has internationally worked on health welfare programs

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