On skid row

Government officials have claimed that there is no food shortage in the country; neither is one to strike soon. This is because, they say, food output has jumped 17 per cent during the past year. But the facts tell a different story. A number of districts, particularly in the far and mid-western hills and mountains, are facing acute food shortages, and many people in some of them are reported to be in a famine situation. The World Food Programme (WFP) has also come out with a report that says some 2.5 million Nepali villagers are in immediate need of food assistance, whereas another 3.9 million rural people stand at risk of falling victim to food insecurity arising from shortages and price rises. The increasing food-price trend, aggravated by the recent hikes in fuel and transport costs, is expected to swell the ranks of risk-prone people.

Nepal, once a net exporter of food grain, has turned net importer for a number of years. The soaring costs may make things difficult also for agencies such as the WFP to maintain their present coverage of food assistance in Nepal. Food and fuel prices have shot up steeply in the world over the past year alone. And these twin issues have started dominating most international multilateral talks, at G8 and SAARC summits. A number of rice-producing countries, including India, have banned export of rice. But the urgent concern must be to ensure food availability now and in the near future, with sufficient purchasing power. This is the short-term strategy, which includes emergency food aid, while in the medium and long terms, plans and strategies have to be devised to make the country self-sufficient in food. The forthcoming government must take up the problem with the seriousness it deserves.

At a recent programme in the capital, Finance Minister Dr Ram Sharan Mahat accused international donors of not investing in Nepal’s irrigation sector, crucial to boosting its food output. This is not entirely true in the first place, because Nepal has received many billions of rupees of aid to build high-ticket irrigation projects over the decades. A question also arises, what successive Nepali governments have done on their part? Moreover, there are other factors that affect food production. In the final analysis, much of the investment in irrigation and agriculture has gone down the drain despite the fact that, officially, top priority has been accorded to agriculture during the half-century of planned development in the country. In Nepal, food consumes 59 per cent of an average family’s income, and the lowest 20 per cent of the population spends as much as 73 per cent on food. Thirty-one per cent population live below the poverty line, and 41 per cent are malnourished. The present food shortages and price jumps have hit these groups the hardest, while others just above them have also become highly vulnerable. The economic and social consequences of this will be various and deeply unsettling. This food insecurity calls for an overhaul of the failed agricultural and food policies of the past and the present, learning lessons from the mistakes and adopting the right approaches, which should invariably include an effective fight against corruption and mismanagement.