'Ghaans ki Roti' still a staple food for tribals in the times of PDS

Bhopal, Nov 20 (ANI): The National Advisory Council after an intense period of wrangling with the Planning Commission and the government has cleared Food Security framework based on differential entitlements with legal guarantees.

The framework, which will form the basis of the Bill, also envisages additional entitlements beyond the PDS to address the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable sections of society. These include entitlements for child and maternal nutrition, which include nutrition programmes for pre-school children (covered by Aanganwadis), pregnant and lactating mothers, maternity benefits and mid-day meals for school children. It also talks about community kitchens for destitute and vulnerable groups.

It seems an ambitious move with a promise of coverage to all those who had been bypassed but it is equally important to examine the fine print and see if in the new scheme of things, is anyone left out? Economist and NAC member Jean Dreze sounded a discordant note stating "Unfortunately the NAC seems to be expected to work within the constraints of the government that does not leave scope for what is required to address the problem of hunger and under nutrition in an effective manner".

Between these two positions, representing the oft-opposing poles of economic pragmatism and social vision lays a moot question. If hunger exists in any form, in any pocket of this country, in any community or individual, would this framework and proposed Bill serve the need? That is the only question worth asking and the answer to that is the only justification for a Food Programme that claims to be universal.

For the tribals in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh, the question is not an academic one. In Gajnai village, starving tribals were forced to eat Ghaans Roti to quell their hunger. What is shocking and unacceptable is that this is not a new phenomenon. They have routinely faced such a grim reality to survive. Here lies text-book case of falling through the cracks.

What is worrying is that there may be several other 'pockets' of darkness in the country like the tribals in Raisen. After all, dispelling 'hunger' is not and cannot be confined to disbursal of food-grain. That is a given and this means Food Programs are meant to focus on making available adequate and timely quotas to the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable sections of our society.

The catch is that it necessarily needs to go beyond that and in a larger sense, build an enabling environment so that in a localised situation, communities are able to keep hunger and malnutrition at bay. This does not get addressed adequately in the current framework and this is where the shoe pinches for communities like the Raisen tribals.

The situation on the ground however stands testimony to this. Out of six crore population in Madhya Pradesh, around 20 percent of the populace is tribal, living in hills and forests. Livelihood options are severely limited. According to sources 41.1 percent of the tribal families do not have land aside from the piece on which their home stands. Traditionally they have survived on gathering minor forest produce and selling it in village haats.

The government has come down heavily on this with a move, which prohibits collection of forest produce by individuals. Laws do exist to protect this right but are sorely lacking in the accountability and transparency that is required. Here too the community falls through the cracks, leaving them uncovered, unprotected.

In that case there should be other avenues open for income generation and upliftment of these communities. The Janani Suraksha Yojna, Baal Sanjeevani Abhiyaan, Muskaan Project, Shaktimaan Yojna. Central to the issue of livelihood, hunger, the mammoth Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and of course the Public Distribution System, which is now under a scanner.

What is unfortunate is that none of these schemes are really contributing to providing the elusive 'safety net' for Raisen tribals nor preventing them from falling back on 'Ghaans Rotis' for survival. Overall their development scene is dismal.

They lack access to basic facilities like health and education. A report of the NFHS says that in 1998-99 the mortality rate of children below the age of three years was 53.5 %, which rose to 60.3 % in 2005-06. Six decades of our Independence from foreign yoke, dozens of Five-Year Plans, huge strides in science, technology later, and this situation is shameful. Now the Food Security framework envisaged by a body of best minds in the country needs to urgently address this. That will be the litmus test of any policies flowing out of this and the proposed Bill.

What is interesting is that within the patterns of cultivation of tribal communities lie some answers to the problem of hunger. Till the 70s the tribals used to cultivate Kodo, Kutki, Sanvaliya and Bhatli, all local forms of hardy grain, which could be stored for years. In later years, due to the pressure of the market and the need to enter it through 'cash transactions', they turned to growing wheat and soyabean, commonly referred to as 'cash crops'.

The flip side is that unlike traditional agriculture, they require a lot of inputs like pesticides resulting in a loss of fertility of the soil. Also the communities became bereft of the traditional grains, which used to provide nutrition. This is a typical situation, one which has led NAC member and renowned agricultural scientist, M. S Swaminathan to express the hope that the contours of the National Food Security Bill would pave the way for PDS reforms along with revitalization of agriculture.

Obviously there is a need for a holistic approach to the needs of tribal communities in Madhya Pradesh and other states, which have tribal populations and could face a similar fate. According to Ashok Malveeya writing for the Charkha Features, it necessarily needs to be a combination of Central government's macro-level policies through a reformed PDS, through entitlements beyond PDS and at the state level, a rigorous implementation of pro-poor development schemes.

Ultimately it needs to ensure that the condition of hunger is eliminated from the face of the land. Anything falling short of this is clearly unacceptable, not only to the tribals in Raisen but all those advocating the banishment of hunger and malnutrition in the country. By Ashok Malveeya (ANI)

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