Very often, we fall prey to the premise that only experts can come up with novel solutions. This is not entirely wrong but to some extent too optimistic. Experts can only guide and show the way, the real solution has to come from the political force because the power rests with the political authority. We have seen time and again how provided the right political will, problems that looked unsolvable have now been solved.
The World food prize for this year has gone to erstwhile presidents of Brazil and Ghana (both political individuals and not experts mind you) – Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and John Agyekum Kufour.
In the global hunger index 2011, India is at 67 among 81 nations as per the International Food Policy Research Institute. While our experts were busy fighting over the poverty line and in the process made an absolute mockery of defining the poverty line (and yet nobody knows how many people are actually above it or below it), Ghana’s poverty rate became half (came down to 26.5% from 51.7%) and on the hunger index came to 9 from 34 in the times of President Kufour.
In Brazil under Mr. Lula da Silva, number of extreme poverty population came down to 4.8% from 12%. Lula da Silva has shown amazing leadership. To some extent Brazil’s condition is better than India. It doesn’t have any serious border disputes like India and is also the only non-nuclear power in BRIC. Incidentally, both the Football World Cup and Olympics were also bagged by Brazil due to the deft lobbying under Mr. Lula’s regime.
Both Ghana and Brazil embraced technologies to bring about integration of rural poor and raising their standards. In Brazil, $50 was given to each poor family with a condition that such families would have to mandatorily send their children to schools where they will get good quality food. To ensure the money doesn’t go into frivolous activities, it was transferred into the woman’s account. In Ghana, Mr. Kufour encouraged private players into the cocoa production business by allowing them to purchase it. Farm mechanization helped the youth to once again be drawn by the villages into the farms. India’s problems are different, some would say: agreed but we can always learn from Ghana and Brazil’s examples. They have shown the way.
So, at this point, a natural question arises- what should India do to solve its food woes? There can be multiple ways of solving a problem. One traditional method is to put everything with the political power as happens in a closed economy wherein every problem will be solved by the political establishment. The political power decides the rules and checks that everyone plays according to the rules. This method has failed in India primarily because the political power more often than not- designs the wrong rules and when it does enact the right rules, nepotism ensures that it will favour some.
Method two would be to withdraw all rules making it a free for all arena. However, this also fails as some players are smarter than others or have more resources and it leads to a different type of oligarchy where the market is free but in the hands of few. The situation is just like a playfield if left free for all, after few days only the bullies play in it while the small little children are not allowed.
In India as far as food policy is concerned we go for Method 1 or only partially utilizing Method 2. Experts will identify how many poor we have, allocate funds and grains will be distributed to the poor. If it worked and was perfect, there was no need to question it but it isn’t. A possible Method 3 can be to realize the importance of local solutions and accepting that what worked elsewhere will not work here. Only the localites can find out the answer and if you want the solution, look at it in local sources. At best, the basic underlying ideas maybe borrowed but the final shape has to be provided within the framework of local communities. Like Ghana and Brazil did, technology assimilation can lead to good results. As many have advocated, the PDS system (and to prevent the rampant corruption in it) can benefit from techonology.
At present, the real force, the affected people do not have a say in the decision making process. How many gram sabha farmers sit it the high profile meetings where their fates are literally decided by experts who no doubt may be good at numbers but very often are not aware of ground realities. They do not listen to the real people who are waiting for them to lend them an ear. The decision making process must be in sound with the emotions and expectations of the people. As far as food security is concerned, no government can afford to be antipathetic to people’s aspirations and their ideas.
When I was a student in FRI, one of my teachers (who also happens to be the best ecologist I have ever come across) told me that he advocated planting mahua for restoration of degraded lands because the local tribals wanted it. Even though some scientists were against it fearing the men would use it to make alcohol drinks, it was done. The community benefited from it. Mahua is worshipped and so there’s no danger of it being felled. Almost all parts have some use or the other. If you’ve spent some time in a Tribal area and talked to them, then as any adivasi will tell you, “Give me a mahua tree, I don’t need anything more.”
Acknowledgements- For simplicity, the works I referred to are cited here and nowhere else in the article. The three methods mentioned in the article are largely based on the works of Oliver Williamson and Elinor Ostrom (Nobel prize winners in economics, 2009). While Oliver Williamson explained the first two in the form of hierarchies and markets, Elinor explained self governance- the third method in my article.