By Prof. J. George*
The worlds leaders at September-end UN meet have only reaffirmed their faith on accomplishing livelihood and food security using millennium development goals (MDGs) as the global protocol.
The financial institutions meltdown in US besides sending shivers down the nations must wake them to at least ensure livelihood and food security as an antidote against other misfortunes in the immediate future. The West Bengal Governor’s advice not to treat ‘Land as a dematerialised share certificate’ to swing in tune with the Sensex in fact gives this distress a contemporary perspective.
The paradox of increasing capital flow from south to north has already led to new thinking on approaches to the development financing issues. SAARC ministerial summit, for example, by issuing the Colombo Statement on Food Security in addition to the Declaration provided the much needed thrust and guidance to struggles the region has been facing lately at the multilateral trade forum in Geneva and the food prices crisis front.
As if the leadership had premonitions of the looming financial cataclysm, the ministerial summit in Colombo on 2-3 August did not require protracted discussion and maneuverings to come out with a short (196 words), precise and clear statement on Food security for the region. The SAARC vision of making ‘South Asia once again the granary of the world’ is indeed laudable as the first firm step and must be energetically supported. It is certainly in the greater interest of regional development and economic integration.
The SAARC secretariat as well as the inter-governmental expert group must seriously heed the poignant and yet urgent plea by the leaders to operationlise SAARC Food Bank. The 1987 plea fell through as the seven nations could not ensure to collectively earmark at least 125 thousand metric tons of foodgrains (rice and wheat) as the reserve for emergencies.
Certainly, either the concept of the “SAARC Food Security Reserve/Bank” has not travelled out of the ministry of external affairs precincts or the lobby of interested parties, for their immediate speculative private gains has blunted all fervent pleas. The crisis of leadership, definitely, is starkly evident. Food management in the region has particularly seen a wide spectrum of poor leadership.
The concept of food security in SAARC is a natural corollary to the well recognised SAARC Development Goals (SDGs). SDGs have been suitably adapted from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the region’s need. The concept owes it origin to the DECLARATION signed by SAARC Foreign Ministers in NEW DELHI on August 2, 1983. The avowed objectives of SAARC charter (1985), like, improving quality of life, ensuring life of dignity and collective self reliance, amongst others, undoubtedly is inspired by the concept of food security in a much broader sense.
Since the establishment of SAARC the concept of food security was restricted to establishing the SAARC Food Security Reserve that came into force in 1988 following an agreement to this effect signed during the third Summit in 1987. After nearly two decades during the twelfth Summit in 2004 the concept was rightly changed to Regional Food Bank.
A SAARC Food Security Reserve Board (FSRB) has been considering different mechanisms to make the idea workable in the region. A text of an agreement was finalized in 2006 and endorsed at the 14th Summit in April 2007. Each member nations were supposed to ratify this agreement by July 2007. Before we raise the question about how many have indeed ratified the concept and the agreement in their respective national parliaments, one must seriously ponder over the geo-political developments in the interregnum in the SAARC countries during this period.
The 2007 SAARC Food Bank agreement has 16 Articles and two integral Schedules. The superseded SAARC Food Security Reserve agreement of 1987 in comparison is sketchy and apathetic even to the cause of emergency relief. The major aim (Article 2) is to ensure food security during normal time food shortages, provide regional support to national food security efforts in the true spirit of fostering inter-country partnership and regional integration besides solving regional food shortages through collective action.
The Food Bank has agreed to maintain a reserve of 2.41 lakh metric tons of rice and wheat in any combination (Schedule I). The Afghanistan share is not included. India with an earmarked reserve share of nearly 2/3rd is the major contributor. There are provisions for maintaining a defined fair average quality (Schedule II) of the foodgrains in godowns.
The confusion on the “who will bell the cat” has been clearly demarcated between the Food Bank Board (Article XI) for policy making as well as review and designated Nodal Point(s) for transacting all business at the national level to operationlise the Food Bank (Article X). In the present times with comfortable wheat buffer stock we can certainly show the way forward to SAARC members besides fulfilling the Indian PMs Promises.
Considering the commercial import of the concept three broad principles for determination of prices have been elaborated in the 2007 agreement. These are, (1) quoted price shall be lower than prices generally charged or quoted for countries beyond the region; (2) representative of the domestic and international market price aptly adjusted for seasonality and recent movements; (3) according national treatment in calculating cost components. It is too early to put these principles to any acid tests but the second principle does invite circumspection. A sure recipe for failure will be the eventual outsourcing of the management tasks to a third party under the dubious garb of efficiency and value for money. A resolute commitment to welfare and delivering the services is the call SAARC Food Bank officials have to take.
Food Bank Board
The SAARC Food Bank Board must be constituted afresh with those willing to burn midnight fuel to iron out starting problems. Though daunting, task is indeed challenging for creative and innovative initiatives. For instance, internal networking amongst various groups set up under the three development windows of SAARC, namely, social, economic and infrastructure. Besides, the recent global food price crises need to be factored in for not repeating the unpleasant journey on the road to disaster.
The Indian experience of buffer stock management since independence, fortunately, is available for study that will bring out contours for viable and successful operating procedures. Undoubtedly, foodgrains production, procurement and distribution protocols in India is heavily guided by the public policy having a firm grounding in the Constitution of the country.
At the same time the Board will have to reckon or be prepared for cases where withdrawals from the Food Bank are made without honouring the commitment towards maintaining a reserve. Therefore a strategic economic management of the production landscape in the SAARC member states is of utmost significance.
The agrarian and food crisis in the region over a long period of time have made each member country fellow travellers in the livelihood and food security pathways. The SDGs provide an immediate starting point for reflection and developing action plan template. The Colombo statement on Food Security directs agriculture Ministers of SAARC member states to act immediately (November 2008 meeting for short to medium term strategy) on production enhancement and nutrition security in South Asia, home to 40 per cent of the world’s poor.
Against this backdrop it is indeed very surprising that a “revolutionary” Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ during his 14-18 September 2008 visit to New Delhi did not mention the grassroots concerns about livelihood and food security on behalf of the Nepalese citizen. It is difficult to imagine that such grave distressing facts of life should be considered infra dig in a bilateral relationship. Perhaps, the political and personal aim of the leadership deemed it opportune to relegate it to the backburner. The greater cause of regional development and economic integration within the globalisation era must reckon with livelihood and food security footprints for sustainable development.
But despair is not the final outcome if we bear in mind our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech that aptly and succinctly recalled the ‘promises to keep’ even amongst the close nations. He said that “this is a moment of opportunity for us … rapidly marching forward to regain our rightful place in the comity of nations”.
[Prof. J. George was a Member of the Agriculture Working Group set up by the Planning Commission for the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-2012) in India. He teaches strategic economic management initiatives and is based in Delhi. Comments welcome at: email@example.com]