INDIA continues to debate the definition of the poverty line while Ghana and Brazil became the only two countries during the first decade of the new century to achieve and surpass the United Nations millennium development goal of cutting hunger and poverty in half.
The selection of winners for the 25th World Food Prize — the former Brazil president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the former Ghana president, John Agyekum Kufuor — was a recognition of the role political will can play in ensuring food security, a real need in India.
For the first time in the 25-year history of the prize instituted by Norman E. Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution, politicians are recipients instead of scientists or social entrepreneurs. “We chose to highlight the role of public policy and political will to fight the challenge of hunger. Kufuor and da Silva have achieved a remarkable lot in meeting the challenge by finding a synergy between science and intelligent public policy,” said the Indian agriculture scientist, M.S. Swaminathan. He is now chairman of the jury for the annual prize.
Both former presidents evolved and implemented policies to improve the lives of the poor in their countries. Kufuor helped reduce poverty in Ghana from 51.7 per cent in 1991 to 26.5 in 2008 and bring hunger down from 34 per cent in 1990 to nine per cent in 2004. Lula’s policies helped Brazil exceed the millennium development goal years before the 2015 deadline.
Under Lula, Brazil reduced by half its proportion of hungry people — 93 per cent of children and 82 per cent of adults eat three meals a day now — and reduced the percentage of people living in extreme poverty from 12 per cent in 2003 to 4.8 per cent in 2009. In Ghana, Kufuor encouraged farm mechanization, brought economic reforms, provided incentives and strengthened public investments in the agricultural and food sector — the backbone of Ghana’s economy — which grew at a rate of 5.5 per cent between 2003 and 2008.
The Ghana school feeding programme provided one nutritious, locally produced meal a day for children in kindergarten to junior high school. By ensuring nutritious food at school, this programme reduced the level of hunger and malnutrition while improving attendance. By the end of 2010, approximately 10.4 lakh primary schoolchildren were benefiting from the programme.
Kufuor also implemented economic and educational policies that increased the quality and quantity of food, enhanced farmers’ incomes, improved child nutrition and prioritized national agricultural policies during his eight years in office till 2009. “….farmers managed to double the produce of cocoa from 3,50,000 tonnes annually to over 7,00,000 tonnes by the time I left office…. Today they produce one million tonnes, an all-time record,” Kufuor told a press conference.
In Brazil, poverty and hunger were reduced with cash transfers. The cash aid system, called the Bolsa Familia Programme, put cash in the pockets of women and guaranteed a minimum income to more than 1.2 crore families, nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Recalling how he had to resist critics who said the cash assistance would turn people into beggars, Lula said: “People often do not realise what mothers would do to make the wheel of the economy move when they have 50 dollars in their pockets. Spending it on feeding their families, they create business for supermarkets and markets for farmers.” Lula ensured that the focus of 10 ministries were on his expansive Zero Hunger programmes. Between 2003 and 2011, he made breakfast, lunch and dinner for all Brazilians a central goal of his administration, ensuring that more than 90 per cent of the country’s children ate three meals a day.
In India, food inflation recently has restricted the access of the poor to food. Food insecurity in India demands that political leaders take note of such endeavours and develop a public policy to combat hunger and to ensure the social inclusion of the marginalized.
It is time leaders and politicians in India woke up to the need for social inclusion to help alleviate poverty. It is time we found politicians who have a fair understanding of these fundamental issues and the vision and commitment to bring about a substantial change in the lives of the poor in India.