Sam Pitroda’s new mission – mitigating hunger in India

New Delhi, May 31 (IANS) Knowledge and telecommunication evangelist Sam Pitroda, currently advisor to the Prime Minister on Public Information Infrastructure and Innovations, is on a new mission – to make India hunger-proof and food-reliant.

He is working on a draft to set a countrywide network of private food banks – resource pools he calls them – that will work as a parallel distribution system to disburse food and allied infrastructure to people living on the edge of the poverty line and below in the vast Indian heartland.

Pitroda will put his project, India Food Bank, in place by the yearend with the help of a Chicago-based international organisation, Global Foodbanking Network, a Stanford University think-tank that provides food aid to 30 nations.

Statistics narrate a grim tale of hunger in India, a country of 1.2 billion that is home to 27 percent of the world’s hungry populace with one of the largest populations of malnourished children. Rough estimates by the Action Aid, a global anti-poverty organisation, cite that nearly 212 million people suffer from chronic hunger and undernourishment in India.

The United Nations World Food Programme paints a more alarming picture saying nearly 350 million of India’s population – roughly 35 percent – is considered food insecure, consuming less than 80 percent of the total energy requirements.

‘I identify with the problem because I was born in a large family in Kalahandi in the Bolangir district of Orissa that is ravaged by hunger and is prone to drought,’ he said at an interface on his new project in the capital hosted by Aspen Institute-India.

‘Three years ago, I took up the issue with a group of food activists at the Global Foodbanking Network in Chicago, the global capital of commodity trading. I told them why can’t we go to India and explore the dimension of hunger and malnutrition that can affect the future of India. More than 212 million people face paucity of food (hunger) in India.’

‘We have a friend in Chicago, John Kapoor, who has made a lot of money. He sponsored a fact-finding team to India that conducted a feasibility study of the project in four underdeveloped states to find out whether it was possible to engage local communities, ensure community participation and create a network of stake-holders who could source essential food and related infrastructure for voluntary donation and distribution under an alternative food chain like the sub-Saharan models.’

Pitroda, who left for the US Saturday, said he would return in July to ‘socialise the idea in the country with necessary modification for implementation by the end of the year’.

‘The government has several food programmes but can we really organise these programmes effectively,’ he argued in justification of his ‘food bank project’.

Commenting on the necessity of food banks to ensure ‘sustained food security in India’, he said ‘while populations grow, food resources are continuously shrinking’.

‘Coupled with natural phenomenon like climate change and global warming, the security of food and other resources is a worrying question. One answer is the concept of food bank,’ he said.

The Global Foodbanking Network, founded by Red Argentina de Bancos de Alimentos (Argentina), Food Banks Canada, Asociacion Mexicana de Bancos de Alimentos (Mexico) and Feeding America (United States), shares food banking concepts and helps partners evaluate the feasibility and most effective business model for implementation in their country.

The organisation was founded in 2006 by four of the world’s leading national food bank networks. Its objective ‘is to fulfil the vision of John Van Hengel, who founded the world’s first food bank in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1967 and worked to promote and establish food banking around the world’.

The latest World Food Programme report warns that more than 1.5 million children in India may suffer from malnourishment because of spiralling global food prices and 43 percent of children under five years of age are underweight.

The report says the proportion of anaemic children has increased by six percent in the last six years with 11 states reporting 80 percent child anaemia.

Figures say one in five people – about 45 percent of Indian children – in developing countries are chronically ‘undernourished’. Food prices have increased by 83 percent in the last two years and 22 countries have enshrined the right to food in their Constitutions.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])