|Volume 7 | Issue 02 | February 2013 ||
Food Security and Social Justice in Bangladesh
REAZ AHMAD relates the concept of social justice to one of our basic needs.
The issue of food security always features prominently as and when we talk about dispensing social justice. Secured food is such an entitlement that its deficit can potentially rip through otherwise well-maintained social cohesion. As food is the most basic of all human needs, an assurance of its availability and accessibility substantially defuse state of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, hunger and unrest in any given society.
However, defining food security remains tricky as always due to many of our naïve explanations of it as to having 'enough to eat'. This is the most simplistic of perceptions that one can have about food security. The food security regime is rather quite a complex one where many variables are at play and many conditions must coexist in a fashion that creates the perfect environment where people can rest assured of their food requirements.
One of the most widely referred definitions of food security is the one adopted in 1996 World Food Summit: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
So first of all it is important that we have available food stock. And that has to be of required quantity and of certain minimum quality so that people can consume it safely. The food can be made available through domestic production or through imports or by securing food aid -- it's a choice though that the nations of the world make by judging respective comparative advantages.
Once availability of food is ensured -- no matter through domestic productions or import/aid, etc. -- the issue of accessing that food by all the people in society becomes all the more important. Either people must have purchasing power to buy the food from the markets or the state must have the mechanism to dole out food to the poor in society. Food availability never guarantees food security, food accessibility does.
For a population to be food secure, access to adequate food at all times is a must and they should not risk loosing access to food as consequences of any sudden shocks like financial meltdown or climatic change or seasonal food insecurity (monga, for instance).
In Bangladesh context, one must consider the nutritional values and safety aspects of food as well, just enjoying the right to accessing enough food is not enough. Rather, it is equally important that the foods the people here are able to access have the correct level of nutrition and are not adulterated or injurious to public health.
Bangladesh is now in the threshold of attaining self-sufficiency in food production. After years of struggle to attain the target of food autarky by 2013, the country is certainly on the right track now to achieve that goal and nearly reach it with its annual food grains output hitting a new record of 34 million tonnes in 2011-12. With wheat and maize productions constituting just a marginal part of it, the bulk of these grains are basically rice productions -- gained from three growing seasons -- aus, aman and boro.
There has been a constant struggle in Bangladesh's agriculture over how to strike a balance between the population growth and crop output growth. Over the past two decades, it happened many a times when increased gains in food production had nearly reached the pace of a still high population growth rate but again fell behind with food demand rapidly surging because of booms in population. Over the past two years the country also witnessed such topsy-turvy scenarios as when in one year the government had to import over five million tonnes of food grains to meet domestic demand and in the very next year the import-dependency was nearly over.
But it is encouraging to note that despite such volatility in food basket and continuous mismatch between population and food production, the government in recent years has significantly enhanced its budgetary outlay as far as social safety net programmes (SSNPs) are concerned. And many of these safety net programmes are directly run by free of charge or subsidised food while others through cash. The poor are being directly benefited from food aids coming to their hands through SSNPs and again the cash flow that is being injected in the rural economy through many other SSNPs also cushion the poor from incidents of high food prices.
As we know, a good network of resource distribution among various income-bracket groups in the society help reduce tension, anarchy and political instability; it somewhat also acts as a catalyst in defusing social disparity, thereby dispensing a kind of social justice where the poor and marginal are not totally left out.
While good advancements in agricultural technology developments, farm output enhancements in leaps and bounds and government's policy supports in terms of agro-subsidy and farm input managements have given Bangladesh a big push forward in terms of achieving food security, concerns remain over management of public food distribution system (PFDS) and SSNPs.
Bangladesh agriculture started its journey with three million metric tons (MT) of food deficit after 1971 War of Liberation when the population was not even half of the size of that of today's Bangladesh. It experienced one of the worst famines of the last century as well in 1974 that saw breakdown of social cohesion and law and order leading to great political instability. It is heartening that Bangladesh with a huge population base of over 160 million today boasts producing surplus grains -- at least in staple rice. Yet its food distribution managements and quality of spending food budgets remains an area of concern.
Bangladesh now runs as many as 80 SSNPs, but many of them are missing the targets they have been designed for. For instance, the poorest 40% of the population get only 55% of primary school stipend from the government and the rest goes to the relatively richer 60%. This was revealed in January this year in the findings of a most exhaustive household survey conducted by reputed global food policy research think tank International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The USAID-funded Bangladesh Integrated Household Survey (BIHS) was conducted with a sample size of 6,500 households picked up from all geographical locations across seven divisions representing mainly rural Bangladesh.
BIHS data show the government's old-age allowance is split almost 50:50 among the poorest 40% and comparatively better-off 60% of the surveyed population. Similarly, a sizeable segment of the benefits under some other safety net programmes like vulnerable group development (VGD), vulnerable group feeding (VGF) and gratuitous relief (GR) are also reaching out to the comparatively richer segment of the population, which should not be the case.
Reaching out resources to non-target groups by operating big government machinery and spending tax-payers' money is of no use as far as achieving food security is concerned. If the effectiveness of the safety net programmes is enhanced, the SSNPs can cater to the poor better and help advance the cause of social justice one notch up.
The survey shows, as many as 36.3% of the farmers in the country are marginal with less than 0.5 acre of land, while 44.6% are small farmers with average farm size in between 0.5 and 1.49 acres. The percentages of medium and big farmers are 11.8 and 7.3. The data show that small farmers irrigate more of their land on a percentage basis, use more fertiliser per hectare, and have higher yields than the big farmers. However, small farmers have much lower access to credit and they access extension services at a much lower rate than large farmers.
So when we talk about food security vis-à-vis social justice, the question of very 'unfairly' developed land ownership and land distribution comes to the fore. With many of our 18 million-strong farming community members depending on farmlands owned by others it is not a healthy sign of further big push in agro-productivity augmentation neither is it a sign of bridging the already widening rich-poor gap anytime soon.
Experts note that prevalence of landlessness is very high and increasing. The capacity to absorb the growing rural labour force in agriculture is extremely limited. A shift of rural labor force out of agriculture requires the creation of rural non-farm employment opportunities in higher productivity sectors.
It is true that farm output has been significantly increased in Bangladesh over the last one decade keeping in pace with rapidly rising population size and there have been significant steps too to distribute the increased food production benefits to the poor through various public food distribution channels but, because of inherent management inefficiencies and graft practices in selection of beneficiaries we are still far from being food secured.
There are still over 35% of surveyed population reporting that their daily per capita calorie (food energy) intake is less than the threshold level of 2,122 kcal (kilo calorie per person per day) and over half of them (16.5%) are even worse with less than 1,805 kcal. People having less than 1,805 kcal are considered to be leading life in 'absolute poverty'.
Of course the dynamics of our dietary habit also have something to do with it. Bangladeshis are among the world's top rice eaters meaning, people here suffer from dietary imbalance missing out on crucial food nutrition. Bangladeshi people consume 160 kilograms of rice a year, which is over three times higher than the world average of 50 kilograms. Rice is the source for over 71% of our daily calorie intake. For the interest of ensuring a more balanced food intake it is important that Bangladesh grows/produces more fish and dairy products because food security is not only about securing cereal food.
Reaz Ahmed is News Editor, The Daily Star.
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