Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How people starve in India as food stocks rot

By Bharat Jhunjhunwala
The Statesman/ANN

THE country’s food grain stock is 60 million tons which is nearly three times the required buffer. We have storage capacity for only 52 million tons. About seven million tons are rotting in the open. At least six million tons have already become unfit for human consumption. The surplus is likely to increase further in the coming months. The monsoon crop has been satisfactory. Heavy rains have led to recharge of groundwater and the winter crop is also likely to be normal.

Surprisingly, India continues to languish in the Global Hunger Index despite availability of surplus food grain. The index is prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute. India was ranked 65th last year. It has slipped to 67th in the 2010 index. Not that the extent of hunger has increased; there has been some improvement on that score. We had secured 31.7 points in 1990. This has declined to 24.1 points in 2010. But while the scale of improvement has been better in other countries, our rank is sliding. The laggard athlete runs forward but is yet said to be ‘behind’ in the race. Similarly, we are moving ahead in reducing the level of hunger but are falling ‘behind’ other countries.

The Supreme Court has suggested that the surplus grain may be distributed free to the poor instead of letting them rot in the open. Yet it is doubtful whether this will lead to better nourishment. Haryana is among the more prosperous states in terms of agriculture. However, its "hunger status" is said to be "alarming". Punjab and Tamil Nadu are not far behind though they are not facing a shortage of grain.

Central to the problem is the lack of a balanced diet. Grains are provided to the poor BPL card-holders at a considerably subsidized rate. However, they don’t have the means to buy oil, pulses and vegetables. The resultant imbalance in the diet may be the reason why these states rank high in the hunger index. The distribution of more grain is unlikely to improve the nutritional requirement of the poor since enough of this commodity is available.

The second factor behind the country’s low rank in the hunger index appears to be the culture of consumerism. The family uses the available money to buy television sets instead of nourishing vegetables. The free distribution of grain is not feasible from the administrative point of view either. As in the public distribution system, the risk of a huge leakage is substantial.

The problem of malnourishment is inherent in the model of economic development. As the policy gets to be implemented, the poor man is first deprived of his job and made destitute. Manufacture of goods by automatic machines is encouraged. Then the destitute is provided with free or subsidized grain through the government machinery. The homemaker is not able to provide a balanced diet because the family can’t afford oil, pulses and vegetables. The government had provided a huge subsidy on urea till a few years ago. Soil productivity declined on account of over-application of nitrogen and a deficit of potash and phosphates. Similarly, the excessive intake of grain is leading to an unbalanced diet, even malnutrition. The current development model also encourages the purchase of electronic gadgets ~ the symbols of prosperity. The family spends the limited cash that is available on such purchases instead of balanced nutrition. The leakages that take place in distribution are also inherent in the development model.

The solution is to dismantle the welfare state and provide direct cash support to all citizens. An advertisement policy, that encourages healthy lifestyles, should be devised. The government must export the surplus grain and distribute the profit obtained. The price of wheat in the global markets is Rs 17 per kg. It is procured at Rs 12 per kg. It is better to export the surplus and give Rs 17 in cash to the poor instead of giving them grain valued at Rs 12.

Domestic prices may rise due to exports. This should not be regarded as a negative phenomenon. The farmers’ income will increase and benefit scores of people. Increased prices will lead to higher production and help secure food security. Agricultural workers will get a share of the higher prices through higher wages, and this will help reduce malnourishment. The negative impact of higher grain prices will be felt by the urban consumers. We should not sacrifice the food security and welfare of our millions of rural people for appeasing this already well-off segment of the population.

The Minimum Support Price policy is said to be responsible for the surplus stocks. The government is committed to buy all the grain offered for purchase at a pre-determined price. Farmers prefer to grow grain because they are assured of this minimum price. The result is excess production of grain and a shortfall in the production of oil, pulses and vegetables. While these facts are true, it doesn’t follow that the support price policy is undesirable.

Till the eighties, we were dependent on food imports. Today we are in a position to export because farmers have increased production on the basis of the support price policy. Millions of farmers have benefited. The government must procure yet more foodgrain and, if necessary, export them even at a loss. This is being done by the developed countries in order to maintain domestic production of food. We need to increase both production and exports. Another strategy to manage the surplus is to include other minor crops such as mustard, groundnut, soyabean and pulses in the Minimum Support Price policy. This will lead to diversification of the crop pattern and make oils and protein available to our people.

The World Bank has suggested that countries like India should not impose a ban on the export of foodgrain as a matter of policy. Free trade in grain will be beneficial for importers as well as exporters. This is in keeping with this writer’s suggestion to export surplus stocks. But there is a critical difference. The World Bank suggests that exports should be allowed even in times of domestic shortage, if international prices are high. This can be harmful for the sovereignty of the country. Remember that the former US President, Jimmy Carter, had imposed a ban on the export of grain to Russia as a pressure tactic for quitting Afghanistan. We will unnecessarily push ourselves to a similar situation. We should confine exports to surplus stocks.

The writer is former Professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Sinhalese displaced from Jaffna and Tamils displaced from the rest of the island

(October 11, 2010, Colombo - Lanka Polity, Ajith Perakum JayasingheLanka, irrespective whether it is Jaffna or Hambanthota is a multi-ethnic multi-religious country since times known.

A minority Sinhalese community lived in Jaffna before the escalation of hostilities in 1980s. Famous stories say they ran the bakery business there. Several university dons, namely Sucharitha Gamlath and Sunil Ariyarathna taught in the Sinhala Department of Jaffna University before 1983.

The fond memories of multi ethnic Tamil dominated Jaffna shattered with escalation of war. Tamil Tigers resorted to military strategies that attributed to ethnic cleansing. But, a Jaffna which was meant to be out of bound for Sinhalese and Muslims soon became a hub for tens of thousands of militarized Sinhalese young men that guarded the city with suspicious watchful eyes penetrating the Jaffna Tamils.

Now the war is over although conflict drags on at different levels. An apparently organized Sinhala group of around 200 families led by yet to be disclosed elements has emerged in Jaffna seeking land to resettle in what they call either the birthplace or the former residential town of theirs. They say their claim is rational although they had no proof for land ownership there.

Jaffna peninsula is a crowded area where a large extent  of land is still under Army high security zones. It is not easy to grant the demands of these Sinhalese families, although their claims can be justifiable.

Many thousands of Tamils also lived similarly in many areas in Sinhala dominated south and they too were displaced mainly as a result of 1983 July ethnic violence against Tamils. They either resettled or began to repeatedly displace elsewhere. What can the government do if all these people come back and ask for land in the places where they lived before they were dislocated by the circumstances of history?

For instance, Anuradhapura is a city a sizable Tamil population lived.  Only a few remained there after 1983 violence and the Tamil Tiger attack in the city in 1985. Some land the Tamils owned were grabbed by others and sometimes government used them in development projects.

What if the Tamils that lived in Anuradhapura return there and seek refuge in the city railway station pleading resettlement. Is the government ready to accept the returning Tamils in the same vein the Sinhalese are admitted and provided security at Jaffna railway station.

If the government redress the Sinhala people displaced from Jaffna it will rationalize the claims of the Tamils for similar treatment. But, the problem here is if this kind of development will create any positive impact in regard of reconciliation.

Won't the Sinhalese if they would be resettled in Jaffna face hostilities from the jealous Tamils who think the Sinhalese are responsible for their plight? Are Tamils' mindset broad enough to admit them as brethren?

In such context, are Sinhalese in south ready to admit the Tamils also in similar vein, if they return to pre-1983 context?

Status quo can be a better solution for some problems although it causes injustice in some senses.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010

Make schools places where love is distributed to the most needed instead of being melting pots of stress and competition

(October 03, 2010, Colombo - Lanka Polity, Ajith Perakum Jayasinghe)Sri Lanka government has announced that legal action will be taken in future against the parents of the children that are not attending schools.

A recent survey of the Census and Statics Department pointed out that around 250,000 children do not attend schools despite education plus text books and uniforms are provided free of charge to all needy and affluent children.

The government has decided to direct these children to schools and to make the village officer, the lowest rank administrative official, answerable if there is any child that is not attending school.

Meanwhile, several teacher activists pointed out that the above mentioned number can be more than the estimate of Census and Statics Department since there are many regular absentees in schools. These students are counted as those attending schools although they are not doing so.

A major reason for absenteeism and dropping out among school children is failing year end examinations and the students losing interest in schooling after failing to enter the next grade.

Many schools make students to repeat in grades but lacks programmes to improve them in the second year they stay in the same class. The attitudes of the teachers towards the repeaters are another reason for dropping out. Most teachers consider the failing students as a nuisance. Many children that lose the association of the peers fail to adjust to the new situation.

Many ignorant parents do not send their children to schools and direct them to earn a living through minor work due to poverty. Assistance and law enforcement is necessary for these families to make their children attend schools.

But that will not solve the problem. There is severe lack of good attitudes in the schools system towards slow progressing students. Principals and teachers are made to show good results and answerable to poor outcome compelling them to make the slow progressing students dropouts to save the heads of the principals and education officials.

It is not easy to get all students pass major competitive examinations. Focus should be to take all the students through the school education process. Failures should not be highlighted as the politicians, officials and media do now for petit gains.

See how many times it is reported that this number of schools has this amount of failures. The principals and teachers are needed to be monitored but not stressed to show the best outcome. There should be proper mechanism to attract and keep the slow progressing students in schools.

The schools are needed to be made places where love is distributed to the most needed instead of being melting pots of stress and competition.

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White handkerchief marks protest against forcible cremation by the government of Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan civil society is silently but strongly marking their protest against the government's inhuman  forcible  cremation of a 20-da...