A hunger free Asia is possible

[This is AHRC Statement on International Human Rights Day]

The more things change, the more they remain the same goes an adage. It holds true for hunger in Asia. Most Asian countries appear to have made momentous gains in addressing absolute hunger, as evidenced by the Global Hunger Report 2014 of the International Food Policy Research Institute. However, there have been no advances in fighting "hidden hunger", i.e. micronutrient deficiency. The percentage point gains showcased in the Report also fail to depict the enormity of the problem in absolute numbers, and the capacity to generate a vicious cycle: from malnutrition to stunting to poverty to more malnutrition.

For example, in 2014, more than 550 children died of drought-induced malnutrition in Tharparkar District of Sindh Province in Pakistan alone. The deaths did not arise suddenly or surprisingly; the story has remained the same year after year in the desert district chronically affected by drought. The story is no different across the heartland of India, where more than 40% children are malnourished.

What have governments done to address the crisis? Have they taken concrete steps to redress the situation policy level, programme level, and in the legal realms in 2014? No is the answer.

Unfortunately, the complete absence of redress mechanism remains the biggest hurdle in achieving the ideal of a hunger free Asia. Barring exceptions, like the battery of social welfare legislations enacted by India, the right to food – a basic prerequisite for the right to life with dignity – remains non justiciable in most of Asian countries. What this implies is that the state is legally bound to protect its citizens from say criminal offences but is not obliged to save a person, family, or community that is starving to death. To make matters worse, big business lobbies are fiercely opposing the legislations enacted in India and the incumbent political regime seems to be under pressure to dilute social welfare schemes. Given that these "exceptional" legislations – such as those on Food Security and Employment Guarantee for – have serious lacuna, there seems to be no end to hunger in Asia in the coming decade.

Most Asian countries are witnessing similar patterns of people being dispossessed from their lands in the name of development; of labour rights that ensure collective bargaining being suspended; and of livelihood opportunities being decimated in the countryside, which is forcing villagers into distress migration. Slavery too has returned in several of the countries in the region, albeit in different forms, such as that of debt bondage. A new era of Banana Republics has also arisen, with countries like Pakistan and the Philippines offering long tenure land leases to foreign companies for corporate farming where the local populace have no rights over the produce, not even during natural calamities and other emergencies.

Tackling such issues would be difficult for even well meaning governments responsive to the nutritional needs of their vulnerable populations, which are few and far between in the Asian region. Therefore, addressing the hunger and poverty at the root will take exceptional circumstances, where committed governments having the political will are supported by civil society to radically restructure the discourse on right to food, bringing in the idea of food security in place of that of the mere absence of hunger. It will require linking the right to food with other basic rights like right to shelter, clean potable water, secured land tenure and livelihood security. Until then, the dream of having a hunger free Asia cannot be realised despite the welcome decline in the incidence of absolute hunger.