How Famine-Hit Odisha Tackles Malnutrition

Malnutrition is one of the major issues Odisha has been grappling with for several years and successive governments in the state have come in for severe criticism on the handling of this issue from different quarters, including the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court.

Odisha, also known as Orissa, is an east coast state of India, on the Bay of Bengal, formerly the ancient nation of Kalinga.

Natural calamities have made a dire situation worse, especially since agriculture continues to be the mainstay of the state’s economy. Over 60 per cent of the population are still dependent on it, although its share in the Gross State Domestic Product had declined to a low 18 per cent in 2009-10.

Of Odisha’s famine-hit districts, the six tribal-dominated ones – Kalahandi, Koraput, Balangir, Malkangiri, Phulbani and Rayagada – have witnessed recurring droughts since 1965. Although the Odisha Economic Survey 2010-11 has stated that the coastal region of the state registered a decline in poverty, in the southern and northern regions poverty and hunger levels remain very high, especially among the Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Scheduled Castes (SC) which comprise 70 per cent of Odisha’s poor.

This January, the state government, after a review of the supplementary nutrition programme for containing malnutrition, stated that although there has been a decline in the number of underweight children below the age of three years, a great deal more needs to be done. It argued for better synergy between the various food security programmes that currently exist in the state and for a greater involvement of the community in addressing the issue.

It is against this background that we need to ask two central questions: How can Odisha do better? And how can the state’s legislators play a more dynamic role in addressing the concern? Clearly, there is a need for greater commitment and consensus from legislators across the political spectrum. Baijayant Panda, an MP from the ruling Biju Janata Dal and a member of the advocacy group, Citizens Alliance Against Malnutrition (CAAM), agrees. As he puts it, “It helps if broad political support is created.”

What tends to happen typically is that issues of hunger and malnutrition polarise political responses. Says Bidyut Mohanty, of the Right to Food Campaign, Orissa chapter, “Very rarely do political parties come together to discuss long-term strategies. Discussions in the Assembly happen only when starvation deaths occur during which the Opposition tries to score points over the Ruling Party and the Ruling Party denies the same.”

In fact, Special Commissioner on Food Security, Harsh Mander, after a recent meeting with the Odisha government, is reported to have observed that the discussion should not be about how a person died, but on whether hunger prevails in the area from where the allegation of starvation deaths came.

Talking to individual legislators, however, reveals that whatever their political stance may be, they understand the issues well and everybody, regardless of affiliation, believes that action on malnutrition is required urgently. Says Prasad Harichandan, a Congress Party MLA from Odisha’s Satyabadi constituency, “The malaise goes deep beyond inadequate intake and frequent disease to larger issues at the household and community level and we need to debate its reasons,” says Harichandan.

As an example, he cites the situation in Balangir, where irrigated land is as low as three per cent resulting in high levels of out-migration and high levels of poverty and hunger. Harichandan also refers to the Wadhwa Commission Report’s observation that the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) in the state is not functioning optimally and as a result the targeted beneficiaries are not able to benefit from this food safety net programme.

Panchanan Kanungo, three times MLA from Gobindpur constituency, who was once the state’s finance minister, argues for more depth in legislative discussions. “Food security has many dimensions – food availability, food distribution, the purchasing power of people, and so on. Unfortunately, the discussion invariably remains limited to routine matters and at a superficial level, with not many displaying a keenness to go into the structural aspects of poverty and food insecurity,” he says.

Is there then a possibility then for legislators to recast their responses to the issue? Baijayant Panda feels that this is indeed the need of the hour. He argues in favour of exposure visits, much like those undertaken at the national level by Members of Parliament in the Citizens Alliance Against Malnutrition, despite their having come from different parties. In fact, the Alliance is currently drafting a national policy and action plan to alleviate malnutrition.

Together with education and exposure visits for MLAs, there should also be regular interaction between the government, academics, civil society representatives and the media on food security. “We can think of joint efforts with editors and political leaders across the spectrum to help project the issue’s importance,” says Panda, and also recommends proactive interventions to harness the powers of the market and civil society.

Kanungo agrees that educating and sensitising the MLAs could go a long way in improving not just the quality of debate in the assembly, but action on the ground.

One way of doing this, according to Mohanty, is to make available to state legislators qualitative and quantitative data on a regular basis. He adds, “The reduction and elimination of malnutrition and hunger in constituency areas should also feature in party manifestoes.”

The United Nations system in India has supported the formation of the Legislative Forum for Human Development (LFHD) to facilitate greater debate amongst policy makers at the state level on human development issues, including malnutrition. It has also created linkages between state legislators and national parliamentarians, as well as conducted state-level workshops to engage legislators.

Many of the younger MLAs are optimistic that they can indeed help to change ground realities. Take Harichandan, a recipient of the first ever Best MLA Award by the Orissa Legislative Assembly in 2002, for instance. He believes that voters should choose only those representatives who will take forward this struggle against malnutrition. And if MLAs play their role as people’s representatives and remain accountable to those who elect them, it could help Odisha put its legacy of hunger and malnutrition behind it. Concludes Harichandan, “In the fight against hunger, we should all come together.”

Harsh Mander Talks About Food Security

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