Food security in dire straits


AMM Shawkat AliAMM Shawkat Ali is a former caretaker government advisor. This former CSP officer retired as a secretary in 2001. He has written several research books and food security has been a focus of his research. He recent spoke to Prothom Alo on the recent floods, relief, rehabilitation, disaster management and food security.

Sohrab Hassan and Iftekhar Mahmud

Prothom Alo: How prepared was the government this time for the floods?

AMM Shawkat Ali: Advance preparation for floods is vital. Floods are nothing new to Bangladesh. We are also aware of the unusual weather patterns. What is important, though, is the advance preparation to face the natural calamity. The government took up an action plan in 2004 to tackle climate change. It is essential to make an assessment of how the funds for that plan have been spent and how this benefitted the people.

Prothom Alo: Why has the intensity of the floods suddenly increased this year?

AMM Shawkat Ali: There are floods more or less every year. This year one third of the country has been affected by floods. There have been floods in other South Asian countries too - Sri Lanka, Nepal and India. There were floods in China. Except for Sri Lanka, the other three countries are upstream from Bangladesh. If there is excessive rain in those countries, this will have an impact here. Flood water never entered the cities in the recent past, but this time it did. A total of 25 pourashavas (municipalities) were inundated. Even in the terrible floods of 74, the flood waters didn’t enter towns like Sylhet or Habiganj. This is where the question of government policy and planning arises. After the floods of 1954, the government of Pakistan assigned the US army’s engineering corps to draw up a survey of the situation to determine what was to be done. In accordance to their recommendations, the water development board was formed. They constructed many dams to control the floods. That project had brought about good results. We have to come up with new ideas now.

To protect people during floods or any natural disaster, they first must be removed to a safe place. Then food supply must be ensured. There are cyclone shelters in the coastal areas, but no specific arrangements for floods. That is because there is a lack of high ground in the flood prone areas. So we simply issue cautionary warnings and that’s about it.

Prothom Alo: So would you say the government didn’t have adequate preparation for the floods?

AMM Shawkat Ali: There is talk about a Master Plan, but I don’t see any major plan. A Flood Action plan was drawn up in 1988 and an institutional study had been conducted for the purpose. There was the USAID-funded eastern water study. They said floods were inevitable and one would have to adjust accordingly. On the other hand, French experts said, with advance preparation, the floods can be brought to a tolerable level. It is necessary to assess the success of the plans that were taken up to tackle the floods then.

Prothom Alo: Food reserves came to an all-time low this year. Would you say the floods have put food security at risk?

AMM Shawkat Ali: In 2007-08 our food grain storage capacity was 12.5 lakh metric tonnes (1.25 million metric tonnes). Somehow 14 lakh tonnes (1.4 million metric tonnes) would be stored in the godowns. It was decided to build more godowns. The government does not involve the public in its work. If that was done, the tasks would be easier. We aimed at having the capacity to store 25 lakh metric tonnes (2.5 metric tonnes). We presently have the infrastructure to store 17 lakh metric tonnes (1.7 lakh metric tonnes). Certain hi-tech silos have also been constructed to store rice.

Prothom Alo: How is this country, self-reliant in food, suddenly facing a food shortage?

AMM Shawkat Ali: There are two types of food storage. One is the food stored by people in their own homesteads to meet their own demands. The other is food grain stored by the government to meet emergency requirements. The target fixed every year for rice collection, is not met. I feel the food ministry did not take this seriously enough. There are two ministries involved in food security. The agriculture ministry’s responsibility is food production. And the food ministry’s responsibility is collection and supply. It is dangerous for food reserves to fall below 3 lakh metric tonnes (300 thousand metric tonnes), but it did so this time. It takes time to import food grain. And simply procuring rice from abroad is not enough. The grain must be of a certain standard. And it also must be ensured that the important drain reaches the consumers in time.

Prothom Alo: How much is the shortfall?

AMM Shawkat Ali: Firstly, the crops in the haors (marshlands) were destroyed by the early onset of floods. The boro crop is cultivated there, not the aman so much. Then floods up north destroyed more crops. Food problems will arise in the affected areas if relief does not reach there in time. There’s no point in giving them cash. In many places they can’t even light a stove. In the past, non-government agencies would come forward with relief, but I don’t see such relief work this time. The prime minister has only appealed to the wealthy to come forward. But people from all walks of life must be included in the efforts.

Prothom Alo: Has an assessment been made about the damages brought about by the floods this time?

AMM Shawkat Ali: A proper assessment hasn’t been made as yet. The country has 2,322,448 hectares of cultivatable land. The area affected by the floods amounts to 542,773 hectares. Then again, when fields go under water, that does not necessarily mean the crops are destroyed. So the shortfall may stand at 30 lakh metric tonnes (3 million metric tonnes). There are plans to import 17 lakh (1.7 million metric tonnes ). So we are facing an alarming situation. An assessment must be made of how many LCs for food import have been opened so far, how long it will take for the food to arrive and so on. Also, plans must be made for the next crops. Water has begun to recede from the flood-hit areas. The agriculture ministry has begun an assessment, as far as I know.

Prothom Alo: How can agricultural rehabilitation be carried out?

AMM Shawkat Ali: Every year after the floods, rehabilitation programmes are taken up. As the prime minister say, the farmers will be provided with seeds and fertiliser. This is the basic task of agricultural rehabilitation. The government will bear production costs. The farmers have to take responsibility of labour. The agriculture ministry is providing power tillers on subsidy. Perhaps fuel can be provided too. Then there are the inevitable irregularities and errors in the lists for relief. This calls for field-level scrutiny.

Prothom Alo: What do you think of the plan to provide rice at ten taka per kg under the food-friendly programme?

AMM Shawkat Ali: I never supported this. The people don’t want this either. No one said that people are starving. And I see in the media that there have been many irregularities in this programme. The food security safety net programme of the government is enough to ensure food security for the marginalized people.

Prothom Alo: Are there sufficient calories in the food being provided to the affected people?

AMM Shawkat Ali: No one really measures calories in the households. Calories are counted in the cities. The meals include fish and meat. But most of the people in the villages don’t have that. The landless and the poor mostly suffer from malnutrition. After the floods, nutrition risks increase. This is called hidden hunger. Until the next crop is harvested, the food security safety next must be strengthened. A sharp watch must be kept to avoid any glitches in the relief and rehabilitation programmes, or else there will be an increase in the number of people under the poverty line.

Prothom Alo: The Food Planning and Monitoring Unit (FPMU) were aware of the situation, so how did the food reserves fall?

AMM Shawkat Ali: Their role should be evaluated. When the first blow came, the stock fell below three lakh tonnes (300 thousand tonnes). The food ministry should have been informed. If they didn’t do so, they should be held accountable.

After the floods, the main task lies with the relief and rehabilitation ministry. But this ministry cannot carry out its work unless the local administration and the local people’s representatives cooperate. N the past we would give the responsibility to the upazila officials. The UP chairmen and the upazila chairmen would draw up lists for assistance with the help of the local administration. Officials of the administration would monitor at a field level to ensure the lists were accurate. Such supervision is required. And the roads that have been damaged in the floods must be repaired immediately.

Prothom Alo: Thank you

AMM Shawkat Ali: Thank you

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