Cooking Up Hope

Updated: Jan 23 2003, 05:30am hrs
The government does occasionally have a good idea and the Indiamix scheme likely to be announced on Republic Day is one such. The Human Development Report states that 23 per cent of Indias population is under-nourished, 47 per cent of under-five children under-weight and 46 per cent under-height. The problem is particularly serious in specific states. National Family Health Survey figures show the share of severely under-weight children is 10.3 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, 25.5 per cent in Bihar, 24.3 per cent in Madhya Pradesh, 20.7 per cent in Orissa, 20.8 per cent in Rajasthan and 21.9 per cent in Uttar Pradesh, a phenomenon compounded by drought. An obvious solution is to release foodgrain from the overflowing food mountain of 60 million tonnes to targeted Below Poverty Line households, through Food for Work programmes and suchlike. But states have been reluctant to lift their allocations because of the costs they have to bear. Even when free foodgrain is released, there are administrative and overhead costs. More importantly, cereal diets are inadequate in addressing malnutrition, since proteins, micronutrients and vitamins are also needed. The World Food Programme (WFP) has accordingly cooked up Indiamix, with 75 per cent wheat and 25 per cent full-fat soyabean, spliced with nutrients. Eighty grammes a day for children, 100 grammes for women and 120 grammes for men prevent malnutrition and different recipes (with or without oil) or plain mixtures with water are possible. Hearteningly, trials in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Nepal have been successful.

Questions of who produces Indiamix and who distributes it remain. The idea is to release foodgrain from Food Corporation of India godowns to manufacturers, who then produce Indiamix and pay the government back in kind. This will reduce costs to a reasonable Rs 13.50 a kg. The corporate sector will be requested to fund the programme, with possible direct tax exemptions, and Rs 5 crore is expected in this kitty soon, enabling funding of overheads and transportation costs. Indiamix will then be released to WFP, which in turn will redistribute it to recognised non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Unlike other Food for Work programmes which often do not lead to creation of tangible assets, NGOs will use Indiamix specifically for water management techniques, to prevent and mitigate drought. This is the kind of innovative scheme, straddling the government, the corporate sector, international bodies and NGOs, that India needs. One only hopes that it doesnt get bogged down in controversies between the Centre and state governments or in identification of credible NGOs. Assuming Indiamixs distribution works, it is high time that colonial definitions of famine, drought and starvation are also revamped. The food mountain is not only symptomatic of artificially high procurement prices, but also of a collapse of distribution. Humans rather than rats deserve this surplus.