The fact remains

Nepal observed World Food Day this week. The country has long remained a chiefly agrarian economy, pouring many billions into agricultural programmes. Yet food scarcity hits a number of districts each year, even during Dashain and Tihar. Currently, 38 districts are reported to be suffering from food shortages; this means 20 to 25 per cent of the population are affected. According to the Department of Agriculture, the national food production is slated to decrease by 300,000 metric tons this year because of droughts and floods. But this is not the principal cause of the chronic deficits that many hilly districts face year in and year out, irrespective of the national food harvest — a good monsoon or a bad monsoon, floods or no floods. Even if food output fell short of the demand, timely imports could easily take care of the problem.

The fact remains that even when there is a national food grain surplus, there is no let-up in the hardship of the people living in these deficit areas. One factor is certainly the poor purchasing power of the local people. Another is the official indifference to the pressing need to supply food grain to these areas in time. Admittedly, it is difficult to reach the foodstuffs to remote regions speedily. But as this problem is chronic, it becomes the duty of the agencies concerned to anticipate the need and take action before it is too late, making allowances for the time lag that may result from the difficulties in transport. But even those able to pay have found it difficult to get food grain whenever they want. The problem is one of logistics. Successive governments have paid little heed to the issues of both the declining purchasing power and making food grain available to the needy in time.

It is indeed difficult to provide easy transport access to all such areas in the short term. But the country has spent half a century of planned development, and the fact that this crisis still exists in alarming proportions speaks volumes for the extent to which the people living in deficit districts have been neglected. Finding a long-term solution involves a combination of approaches. One is evolving ways to boost food production locally. The second is to improve easier surface access to those districts. The third is for the government agencies to act responsibly in dealing with the perennial crisis, anticipating it well in advance. Officials tend to take their duty callously because they do not have to pay any price for their dereliction of duty. If only they were held accountable for their negligence or incompetence, things would improve considerably. The fourth is one of doing something about generating income of the local people. It is also necessary to ensure that foreign food aid meant for deficit areas is not misused. The efforts thus far have been far from adequate. Experts often stress the indispensability of maintaining a comfortable national food reserve. This is absolutely essential

at the local level, too.