Despite billions of dollars spent on several projects — from subsidized food, midday meals for school children to cash transfers — hunger and malnourishment continue to afflict about 336 million people in South Asia, especially women and children.
Hunger and malnutrition are the number one risk to people’s health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, according to the World Food Programme.
The problem is not lack of food but a weak distribution system that makes access to food difficult for millions of people, say experts.
India has enough food grain stocks while production in Bangladesh has trebled to 30 million metric tons in the past three decades, according to media reports.
Instead of increasing allocation on subsidies, governments must think of measures to reach food to those who need it under the existing projects, the experts point out.
In India, huge quantities of food grains, mainly rice and wheat, rot in railway yards or even on highways. Sacks of wheat and rice supposed to be distributed to poor families are often sold in the open market.
This increases pressure on the government to raise the allocation on food subsidies and other social safety net programs.
In a paper titled Food Price Escalation in South Asia — A Serious and Growing Concern, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) says subsidies are “likely to increase current expenditure and worsen the fiscal deficit”.
“In particular, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Maldives already have relatively high fiscal deficits,” the report says.
Soumya Kanti Ghosh, director (economics and research), Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, says ensuring food for all should be the priority. But unless productivity and yields go up, adequate storage facilities are built, efficient distribution networks are in place, and most importantly, leakages are plugged, food security will remain elusive.
“Without these fundamental system corrections, the money allocated for such schemes will only deepen budgetary deficits,” says Ghosh.
He says India is considering a law that will enable 75 percent people living in villages and 50 percent living in cities to buy rice and wheat at highly subsidized rates. The subsidized rice would cost not more than Rs 3 ($.053) per kilogram, wheat Rs 2 per kilogram, and coarse grains Rs 1 per kilogram.
If approved, the scheme will cost the exchequer about Rs 5 trillion in three years.
“But where will the money come from?” asks Ghosh. “With borrowing standing at $345.8 billion, revenue growth weakening and expenditure rising, can India really sustain a scheme like this for long?”
India currently spends Rs 720 billion on food subsidies.
Pakistan, where half the people are reportedly food insecure, recently announced a new scheme, the National Zero Hunger Action Programme, under which the government will spend $16 billion over the next five years.
In Bangladesh, the allocation for food subsidy was 11 billion taka ($130 million) in the financial year 2011.
However, according to a Sri Lankan High Commission official in New Delhi, measures like these should depend on situations.
He recalls how Sri Lanka in the 1960s adopted a welfare package which included the distribution of a fixed amount of free rice among the poor. After both foreign and local experts criticized these measures as a severe burden on both the government budget and the economic growth process itself, they were cut to the bones in 1977.
With food prices rising in most South Asian countries, there are hardly any signs of improvement when it comes to securing food for the poor.
According to ADB, “South Asia stands out as the region that has been most affected by food price spikes... and arguably the most vulnerable region to increasing food inflation given the large segment of the population living below or near the poverty line.”
In the Manila-headquartered bank’s assessment, the “major direct impact of persistent higher food prices ... includes adverse impact on growth as it reduces real income consumption, saving and investment”.
Apart from policy measures, intra-region trade in food commodities can play a crucial role in both stabilizing food prices and ensuring food security, says Ashok Gulati, chairman of the New Delhi-based Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.
“It’s a matter of moving food grains from surplus to deficit countries,” Gulati says. “Trade helps to augment supplies of products and promotes efficiency in allocation of resources as long as it is not distorted through subsidies.”
Gulati, former director at New Delhi’s International Food Policy Research Institute, also underscores the need to raise people’s incomes through productive jobs, “whether they are farmers or industrial workers, whether they live in cities or villages”.
“We also need to improve the efficiency of agri-produce value chains to make food cheaper from ‘farm to fork’. That requires investments and institutional reforms, especially getting the market right,” he adds.
Economist Mohammed Saqib, secretary-general of India China Economic and Cultural Council, says it’s high time modern science technologies are used in farming.
“China has achieved remarkable success in production and processing of agriculture,” he says. “They have made excellent use of high-yield variety seeds and mechanization in agriculture and post-harvesting techniques.”
Gulati agrees, saying China, to an extent, can be a model for South Asia.
“Small farms and high productivity without much subsidy is a model worth emulating,” he says.
According to reports, more than 60 percent of rice-growing land in China uses hybrid seeds with total yield almost double that of India.
Pooja Sharma, a senior fellow at New Delhi’s Indian Council for Research and International Economic Relations, says there should be some fundamental reforms, giving more power to local governments to build infrastructure and deal with malnourishment.
Climate change is another area of worry for South Asia, one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world.
A report from Purdue University in the US warns global warming could delay the advent of the monsoon by five to 15 days within the next century and significantly reduce rainfall in South Asia, where three-fifths of the cropped area is rain-fed.
Rising global temperatures are likely to lead to an eastward shift in monsoon circulation, which could result in more rainfall over the Indian Ocean and Bangladesh but less over Pakistan, India and Nepal, it says.
Natural disasters like floods and cyclones routinely visit many parts of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, damaging crops worth billions of rupees.
The frequent natural calamities prompted countries in South Asia to set up a Food Bank in 2007. However, according to ADB, it doesn’t yet have adequate food grains stocks.
Sharma says there is a growing need for deeper integration between the countries in the region so that the project works efficiently.
“We should use the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (a bloc of eight South Asian countries) forum (for integration),” she says. “More dialogues are needed to work out an effective system.”