Monday, May 03, 2010

Amartya Sen’s Idea of Food Security

Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist and considered the leading social scientist in the world today, has been advocating for decades that economic growth, rise in GDP and income are only a means not the ends of development. He first clearly laid out these views in his essay: How is India Doing? In the New York Review of Books (1983). He pointed out that Kerela with low growth has achieved high standards in education, health, life expectancy and gender equality. He proposed the concept of human development and the need to focus on developing capabilities to be able to choose a valuable life that is worth living. In his book Development as Freedom, he emphasized among others the freedom from hunger as a fundamental freedom.

The next Human Development Report to be out in August 2010 includes more indicators like education, health. Income, equity, environmental sustainabilty and empowerment through participation of the poor. Food Security is the basic minimum for health participation and equity especially as India is the third largest producer of food and the go downs are overflowing while chronic hunger persists more than elsewhere. India is languishing at around 130 in the Human Development Index, while its growth rate is second highest in the world

Sen in his research on world famines concluded that during famines the important issue is not availability of food but the distribution and the lack of purchasing power of the poor. This led him to propose entitlement or a kind of right of the hungry to have employment so that they can buy food. Sen found that while China had a big famine where millions of people starved to death, India after independence with its democratic institutions and free media avoided famines. Yet why does the same democracy allow mass hunger to go on and on persistently? Sen and Jean Dreze wrote a book: Hunger and Public Action, where they suggested that that the government and the state is responsible for taking effective steps including enacting laws to ensure food security for all. They explained that public action should also take place from below by grass roots groups, civil society and citizens to put pressure on the government because laws by themselves are not enough

The Kolkata Group, an independent initiative inspired and chaired by Amartya Sen, has demanded that the Right to Food Act be made non-discriminatory and universal to cover justiciable food entitlements for all Indians. The Eighth Kolkata Group Workshop (February 2010), has argued for creating durable legal entitlements that guarantee the right to food for all in the country. Sen stressed the need for firm recognition of the right to food, and comprehensive legislation to guarantee everyone the right.
“A Right to Food Act covering justiciable food entitlements should be non-discriminatory and universal. Entitlements guaranteed by the Act should include foodgrains from the Public Distribution System (PDS), school meals, nutrition services for children below the age of six years, social security provision, and allied programmes” a statement released by the group said.
On the basis of extensive discussions on the exceptionally high levels of under-nutrition in India, particularly among women and children, the Kolkata Group argued for firm recognition of the right to food in general and comprehensive legislation to guarantee the entitlement of food for all. Recent experience (including Supreme Court orders on the right to food as well as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) shows the value of putting economic and social rights in a legal framework.
Legislation should recognize that food and nutritional security depends not just on food but on a set of related interventions that promote women’s health and nutrition, safe drinking water, proper sanitation and healthcare. Design and implementation should include effective public participation, grievance redressal provisions and independent monitoring.

Recently Sen along with Josep Stiglitz; another Nobel Prize winner, chaired a commission on “Impact of Economic Performance on Social Progress” (which included two other Nobel Prize winners) set up by President Sarkozy of France. In their report they proposed that social progress apart from economic growth and GDP should equally emphasize environmental sustainability and well-being. Well-being of course cannot be imagined without food and nutritional security leading to good health

Although Amartya Sen is celebrated all over the world and is facilitated in India as a national treasure, his advice is generally ignored. If the government is serious about economic reforms and about honestly implementing the right to food law, they will do well to consult Sen on a regular basis. It is high time that like French President the Indian Prime Minister should appoint a commission under Sen’s leadership on Impact of Economic Growth on Food Security and Human Development

Article by:
Prahlad Shekhawat