Thursday, September 11, 2008

For a food-secure South Asia

It is an editorial published in "The Hindu" on 7th August,2008

The Colombo statement on food security, adopted by the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) at the 15th summit, brings into focus one of the basic issues confronting the peoples of the region. For this laudable initiative that could make a difference to the region, described by the World Bank as home to 40 per cent of the world’s poor, SAARC has to incorporate time-tested approaches, also taking into account ground realities. That t he regional grouping has remained a laggard in this crucial area is evident from the fact that the SAARC Food Security Reserve, agreed upon in August 1988 and renamed the SAARC Food Bank in 2007, is yet to become fully operational. Recent experience shows that, in times of emergency, the bilateral mode of cooperation has prevailed over regional cooperation. For instance, member-states such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh gained from India’s supplies to tide over shortages in the past two years. Effectively transforming a string of bilateral arrangements into a regional framework is the essential first step. As things stand, there is little to foretell an early switchover from the bilateral to the multilateral mode in the near-term. The systemic changes that are reshaping the agricultural sectors in all the member-states lend urgency to operationalising the Food Bank.
In addition to the short-term concern over the food crisis, there is the larger question of redefining the scope of food security and making it contemporary. In the two decades since 1988, the definition of food security has widened to include components such as availability, stability, accessibility, and nutritional content. Yet, the Colombo statement continues to emphasise only the quantitative aspects of food security or raising production levels, a focus reminiscent of the 1970s. One common affliction of South Asian countries is malnutrition. Addressing the nutritional aspect of food security is the more important long-term challenge for South Asia. There is a lot to share within the region in terms of the experiences of individual countries in this area. Moreover, given South Asia’s agrarian base, the ongoing economic changes have serious consequences for livelihoods. The similarities provide the scope for SAARC nations to adopt common solutions. One charge against SAARC is that it is slow to act. Last year, the group said that it had moved to the implementation stage. The time has now come to deliver on its decades-old promises to its peoples. Food security is a good starting point.

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