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Introduction: Increasing food insecurity in South Asia

By Jayati Ghosh

South Asian nations have transformed from food-deficit countries in the 1960s and '70s to food-surplus countries in the 1980s and '90s. And yet, food insecurity and under-nutrition remain huge problems. How is this paradox to be explained?

One of the most significant forms of material insecurity in South Asia is still food insecurity. It remains a major policy challenge, despite the fact that food production has increased (but at a declining rate) in all the countries of South Asia and these countries do not face an aggregate shortage at a macro level.

The table below shows that South Asian countries have been exporting some amount of food. The balance for 2002 is positive in all countries except Bangladesh. These countries have transformed from food deficit countries in the 1960s and 1970s to food surplus countries in the 1980s and 1990s. However, increased food production has not generated greater household and individual food security for significant sections of the population.

Country

Food Production

Food Exports

Food Imports

Food Balance

Bangladesh

26,924

1.6

2,827

-4,601

India

1,74,655

9,490

56

23,826

Nepal

5,839

11

39

57

Pakistan

24,936

2,966

288

3,818

Sri Lanka 1,938 9.8 1,307 252

Source: FAO, 2004. Figures in thousand metric tones for 2002

Across the region, there is evidence of inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, reflected most starkly in declining per capita calorie consumption among the poorest quartile of the population. Per capita foodgrain consumption in India declined from 476 grams per day in 1990 to only 418 grams per day in 2001. Aggregate calorific consumption per capita declined from just over 2,200 calories per day in 1987-88 to about 2,150 in 1999-2000, according to National Sample Survey data.

Nutritional deficiencies remain huge - at least half the children in India (and possibly more in Pakistan) are born with protein deficiency. Anaemia and iron deficiency are also widespread and continue to be severe problems. World Bank estimates show that about 35% of the population is chronically undernourished in Bangladesh followed by 25% in India, 20% in Nepal and Pakistan and 25% in Sri Lanka.   

What is worse is that there has been little change in the prevalence of under-nutrition in South Asian countries from the early-1990s through the late-1990s. If anything, the level of food insecurity has worsened slightly during the 1990s. This situation is unlike other parts of the developing world such as China, Indonesia, Malawi and Kenya, all of which have achieved a more than 25% reduction in the level of under-nourishment during the last decade.

But things might begin to look up if India is able to harness alternative energy sources, such as hydel, biofuels, solar energy, and even nuclear energy. For instance, it estimates that wind energy can generate 10 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe) and energy plantations could contribute 30 to 60 mtoe from about 10 million hectares. This would not only create livelihoods but also provide income in the form of carbon credits that can be sold at 20 euros per tonne of carbon dioxide. Solar energy could contribute a useful 2.4 billion tonnes of oil equivalent for 10 million hectares, says the report.

Two policy-related forces have played a substantial and indirect role in declining food security: the agrarian crisis and an inadequate generation of employment. Both have meant that patterns of change in purchasing power have not brought about better food security.

Misguided policies have also directly damaged food security in India since the mid-1990s. Attempts to reduce the central government's food subsidy by increasing the price of food in the public distribution system led to declining sales and excess holding of food stocks. This meant more losses and a larger level of food subsidy, even as more people in the country went hungry. Ultimately-as studies have shown-several million tonnes of foodgrain were exported at ridiculously low prices despite widespread hunger and malnutrition in the country.

A loss of livelihood is typically the key shock factor that generates a process that culminates in greater hunger and malnourishment in South Asia. This explains the coexistence of higher production and lower prices of food with the continued, widespread and even increasing incidence of hunger. As world trade prices of food have fallen, incomes of the poor (especially the rural poor) in most parts of South Asia have fallen even further, reflecting the general stagnation of productive employment opportunities and the worsening of livelihood conditions.

Ironically, cultivators are suffering from the increase in food insecurity just as much as or even more than other groups. This is probably the most significant cause of the continued prevalence of widespread malnourishment. The macroeconomic causes of livelihood insecurity arise primarily from the effects of deregulating the market and reducing State expenditure-processes that have marked the last decade-and-a-half across South Asia.

Land reforms and more equal property distribution remain the key to solving the structural problem of hunger. The more transient or temporary instances of hunger must also be dealt with through macroeconomic policies that firmly commit the government to a much greater degree of involvement, investment and regulation.

Unfortunately, governments in South Asia do not seem to be determined to address this issue, which should be top priority. Even in countries with previously developed public distribution systems for food such as India, policies continue to seriously undermine structures that were beneficial to the public. This leaves the field open for private players, both national and international, to make food security an arena for profiteering. The goal of ensuring food security for all citizens must be put at the core of all political demands and strategies for positive social change.

(Jayati Ghosh is an economist and Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2006