No more excuses

The 15-day Dashain festivities have already started. But a number of districts, particularly those in the far- and mid-western hills and mountains, are reeling under acute food shortages. For them, Dashain will pass without any carnival mood. Over the past year or so, the price of food has shot up, approaching double what it used to be. The extra cost of transporting food to the remote regions will make the prices still higher. To add insult to injury, even at these prices, the people are finding it difficult to get food. This is a shame. For some time past, there have been frequent news reports that a number of districts have been facing acute food deficits. Still, the problem has not been remedied. Indeed, for years and years on end, Nepalis have been familiar with the sad situation of food crisis in some hilly districts, including in and around the festivals of Dashain and Tihar.

Officials concerned have tended to shift responsibility, or to blame the lack of coordination between the various agencies. But the cycle of shortages goes on and people continue to suffer, though they are ready to pay the prevailing price. And those who cannot afford to buy have a sad, separate story to tell. For both these types of people, the statistic of a 17 per cent jump in food output in the year just past holds little meaning. The World Food Programme (WFP) recently reported that some 2.5 million Nepali villagers need immediate food aid, and another 3.9 million are food-insecure because of shortages and price rises. This may make the task of extending food coverage harder. To enable more and more people to have access to food, it will be necessary to boost their purchasing power. But the first challenge is to reach enough food to the deficit areas to meet the existing demand.

Later on, medium- and long-term policy measures may be considered. But successive governments do not seem to have learnt from experience. The recent heart-rending sight of villagers scrambling for rotten rice thrown away in sacks in one of the food-deficit districts remains still fresh. There have been government agencies like the Nepal Food Corporation (NFC), and there has been foreign aid too. There is also the knowledge that, if prompt and effective action is not taken, people will starve. Bureaucratic answers will do no longer. It is a prime duty of the State to guarantee that its citizens have an enough supply of food to buy. Experts have suggested building an adequate food reserve, no less important, at the local level, including in food-deficit areas. A few days ago, the Supreme Court, acting on a PIL case, directed the government to supply food to the starving population of western districts — Kalikot, Humla, Mugu, Dolpa, Bajura, Achham, Dailekh, Darchula, Baitadi, Dadeldhura, Rukum and Jajarkot. This is significant in light of the fact that the Interim Constitution recognises the right to food as a fundamental one. More districts are in food crisis. This time around, a main reason offered by the NFC for the failure to deliver food has been damaged roads. In the past, too, reasons were found. But beleagured people did not find food. Unless strong will is demonstrated and extraordinary measures taken, food-deficit districts will not get food even during Tihar.