[This is an AHRC Statement on The State of Hunger in Asia, 2013]
The tale of hunger in Asia is a troubling one. It tells of people who have slipped through the cracks. Such people, citizens, supposed to enjoy the universal human rights promised to all human beings, have become invisible. While their states celebrate extraordinary tales of economic growth, the victims are left behind; a cursory glance at the recent stories of growth and development in these countries shows how inequitable it has been for those at the margins of society. Many hardships are faced to access what should be theirs as a matter of right.
In 2013, the AHRC has worked to support the right to food for all, through its Right to Food desk. These efforts include active engagement in varying degrees with six Asian countries throughout the year. These countries are India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia. The idea central to the right to food programme is to alter the dominant discourse in these countries, one that sees right to food as a non-justiciable right, so it may instead be considered an inalienable part of the right to life with dignity.
To this end, AHRC's Right to Food desk has documented, researched, and analyzed data from these countries, and other sources, in an effort to create comprehensive understanding of the challenge that hunger presents. Today, on Human Rights Day, the Asian Human Rights Commission releases its first State of Hunger in Asia Report, 2013. The report collates and sifts the most critical learning from the year. The report may be accessed online here.
In many countries a substantial section of the population stands at the threshold of poverty and food insecurity due to skewed development policies adopted by their governments. The Philippines are one such example. Another case is India, where there is neglect of communities, which are socially and economically exploited and discriminated against on the basis of caste. Apart from these socio economic factors which influence food security, the geographical terrain and lack of access to remote regions plays an important role in regarding poverty and hunger in countries like Nepal where the plains are better off than the mountains because of greater accessibility. Social stratification plays itself out even in these regions and the dominant groups and communities are found to be much better-off compared to the vulnerable and excluded ones.
In the case of Bangladesh, overall improvement in human development indicators do not necessarily mean a reduction in extreme levels of poverty; on the contrary, reports suggest an increasing number of the people are likely to slide into poverty in the coming years due to the faulty policies and programmes pursued by the state. While the nature of the problem of hunger and food insecurity manifests itself differently in various countries, it would not be too far-fetched to generalize that hunger, malnutrition, and poverty continue to remain a constant challenge for Asian countries to reach their goals of development and equitable growth.
Ironically, hunger and extreme poverty do not persist because of the states' failure to recognize them as real issues. Rather, what is clear from the policies and plans of these countries is the complete neglect and insensitivity of the states towards the conditions of a majority of their population. This is seen when the governments choose to pay heed to the concerns of a small but influential minority when deciding their development plans. Thus, the collaboration with private partners, export of agricultural products, and undertaking of "development projects" takes place to cater to this influential minority and to attract tourism, while often harming the interests of local populations.
Left with no other alternative, they are forced into multiple types of migration ranging from distress to wandering in a quest of survival and employment. Stories of these distress migrations play themselves across Asia, be it exodus to Metro Manila in Philippines, people flocking to sweatshops in Dhaka, or those who simply go missing from government records in India. Aggravating these forced movements are unemployment, poverty, lack of education and health facilities, and a general poor standard of living and working conditions in the places they reach. Often, the places where they migrate have no need of them, and they are forced to try to adapt without assistance. This makes the hardship even more difficult as it has a direct impact on their capacity to access health, education, housing, and other basic needs.
The problems are often compounded by the neoliberal model of development, shoved down the throats of some of the governments while happily adopted by others, that has led large sections of national populations to become impoverished by forcing the states into withdrawing programs from welfare schemes to services delivery systems. Suspension of hard earned labour rights in what is referred to as "special economic zones" in India or "export processing zones" in Philippines has also played a crucial role in disenfranchizing much of the labour force, stripping their rights away.
Among the factors perpetuating food insecurity in the region, faulty prioritization of concerns by national elites requires special analysis. Nepal is a key illustration of the quest of political democracy pushing everything else, the question of hunger included, into the background. The country has been in the "transition" for too long with the political leadership letting large sections of its population starve. The problem here, though similar to other countries, is aggravated by transnational migration of large segments of the male population into neighbouring India leaving the womenfolk behind to fend for themselves.
At the ground level, the issue is exacerbated by delivery mechanisms which are weak and not transparent. The fact that corruption is prevalent across Asia is internationally accepted; most of the funds meant for the impoverished does not reach them intact. Embezzlement and malfeasance throughout the system are part of life in many of these countries and allow only a small amount of funds to actually reach the intended beneficiary. This is further complicated by lack of transparency in the system wherein no proper checks and balances are maintained.
Most of these countries have ratified or are a signatory to many international covenants which make it mandatory for them to ensure that their citizens are provided with basic rights. In addition, the constitutions of these countries also provide for a right to life and livelihood, though the exact nature of this may vary. Yet, despite being bound by these covenants, the governments choose to ignore the real challenges facing its citizens. In order to address these issues, many organizations and campaigns in various countries have been fighting for food security. They have been pressuring the governments to make food security possible for its citizens. In the case of India, this resulted in the passing of the food security act in 2013. Though it has many limitations, such an act is definitely a positive step given the widespread hunger, malnutrition, and death in the country.
Addressing the problems of transparency, corruption, policy planning, grievance redressal mechanisms, and feedback remains central to making food security a reality. In short, the basic objective is to radically restructure the discourse on right to food and make it a right of the people. This can only be achieved through a relentless focus on building an honest delivery mechanism with corresponding mechanisms for addressing failures. Only in the presence of a strong initiative by the governments of these countries to build a strong, comprehensive, mechanism can food security be achieved. In the absence of this, the contradictions of growth and inequity, development and poverty will only continue to deepen the crisis already threatening these countries.