WHO? Rukmani Ramani, 56
WHAT? Food Security Economist
WHERE? MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai
Reported by Nandita Jayaraj
You don’t have to be an economist for this to affect you. You’re always thinking you are doing very very little to change any of this.
The central corridor at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) encloses a peculiar garden. I later learned from Dr. Rukmani Ramani who I was there to interview that the garden was a mini-representation of different vegetations of India – such as coastal, desert, wetland areas. Though relatively small in area and basic in architecture, MSSRF is airy and well-lit. Founded and envisioned by noted scientist MS Swaminathan, this NGO works for rural and agricultural development using science and technology. According to its website, the MSSRF adopts ‘a pro-poor, pro-women and pro-nature approach’.
Rukmani has been working here for 15 years. She manages one of the key areas that MSSRF conducts research and development in – food security. Here, Rukmani is trying to design and implement programmes that will enable the families in impoverished areas to access their right to enough food to stay healthy. This is not an easy task.
India is very hungry
The 2016 Global Hunger Index released last month reported that 38.7% of Indian children under-5 are stunted due to lack of food. These stats are shocking, but nothing new. Government after government has tried to improve the condition of this section of our population, but the numbers still remain high. Just earlier this month, India’s minister of Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan declared the National Food Security Act to be implemented across states from 1st November. This act is supposed to benefit 80 crore people, one-third of our population, by selling to them wheat at Rs 2/kg and rice at Rs 3/kg. This sounds like great news, but even if it is implemented uniformly (which, by the way, is still not the case), food is only a part of the solution to the problem of malnutrition.
Rukmani, who travels to over a hundred villages in India studying the nature of this very problem, elaborated – “There are three kinds of hunger,” she said, “calorie deficiency (can be tackled by promoting food grains as in the Food Security Act), protein deficiency (tackled by promoting poultry, pisciculture, etc.) and micronutrient deficiency (tackled by promoting iodised salt, nutrigardens, etc.).”
What’s the difference between a kitchen garden and a nutrigarden?
A kitchen gardens have plants from which fruits and vegetables can be harvested from on a day-to-day basis. Nutrigardens have some amount of design and planning gone into it so that the produce provides adequate amounts of different kinds of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. There will be greens, roots, fruit trees like guava, amla, papaya, drumstick. The idea is to make a balanced diet as locally available as possible.
“To increase the food security status of households, we encourage farmers to cultivate foodgrains (such as millets and pulses) – even in cash crop growing areas, we suggest they cultivate foodgrains on at least a small part of their land and have nutrigardens for self-consumption so their dependence on the market for food grains, vegetables and fruits is reduced,” said Rukmani.
So far, so good. But Rukmani’s overarching research question is – what is the impact of these programmes? “Is giving people access to food leading to a decline in malnutrition levels?” she said. Hearing this, I was puzzled. Why wouldn’t it?
Because, while you can’t have nutrition security without food security, food security does not have to mean nutrition security. That’s why.
It all comes down to a concept called ‘bioavailability’. It refers to the proportion of any substance entering the circulation and has an active effect after it is introduced into the body. This implies that ingesting food does not necessarily mean the nutrients from it are getting absorbed by the body. For maximum absorption to take place you need to be reasonably healthy – something that much of India isn’t. “You may have access to food, but you also need access to some essential non-food factors such as drinking water and sanitation for your body to make use of this food,” said Rukmani.
She stated the prevalence of open defecation to illustrate how those brought up in areas where it is practised routinely fall sick due to worms and other infections. “When the disease burden is high, this affects nutrition level too. So you see, it’s extremely complex. There are different components of food security – availability, access and absorption of food. Food alone is not going to improve nutrition levels.”
To find answers, the food security team at MSSRF has been looking and investigating situations in some of the most malnourished parts of India. Every quarter, for the last five years, Rukmani has been visiting the Vidarbha area in Maharashtra notorious for farmer suicides. She has covered about 60 villages. She has also been visiting the starvation-struck district of Koraput in Orissa spread across 40 villages. “Over the last four years, my role has been to manage and provide direction to these field level initiatives. We do research on the ground realities and our findings will have to feed into our implementation work.”
Changing her mind about NGOs
When Rukmani first joined MSSRF, she was somewhat skeptical about the scope for an NGO to create change. “I always wondered – whatever an NGO does is a drop in the ocean. Only the government can bring about change to address the basic issues of all marginalised sections.”
“I realised that the magnitude [of the problem] is so huge in our country that there is a role and a place for everyone. I still believe only the government can address issues to bring about changes for a majority, but NGOs can produce models which can be taken up by the government. We work closely with a small section of people and we work with a great deal of dedication and sincerity. In the community with whom we work closely, we do bring about changes. These lessons can be scaled up by the government.”
And there are examples of this, too. MSSRF’s programme to start grain banks in remote tribal areas was also adopted as a government project.
Rukmani recounted: once MS Swaminathan, as Chairman of the National Farmers Commission, visited Vidarbha at the height of its farmer suicides. He found that many of wives of the victims were young women who had school-going children. What was interesting about these women was that they weren’t just wives of farmers, but farmers themselves. These women perform several important farming activities such as transplantation, and they’ve been doing this all along. But somehow, they were never acknowledged as farmers.
Only the government can address issues to bring about changes for a majority, but NGOs can produce models which can be taken up by the government.
“In our country, when you say ‘farmer’ you think of a male face,” pointed out Rukmani. To do something about this, Swaminathan started a programme focused on building capacities of these women – giving them access to skills, technology, credit and the market. “This programme we started in 2007 in Vidarbha and in 2010 it became a national programme funded by the Ministry of Rural Development. Today, the word ‘mahila kisaan‘ (Hindi for woman farmer) is mainstreamed.”
A stumble into economics
Rukmani’s path to where she is today started off serendipitously. Laughingly, she recalled, “I wanted to do engineering after school! But I didn’t get in [to an engineering college] so I settled for a seat in BA Economics which I was offered in Queen Mary’s College.” This was in Chennai, then Madras, where she was born and brought up. Even when she started her BA course, her intention was to shift to BSc Mathematics when some seats opened up there; maths was her subject of preference. “I had no idea what economics was; I did not have to study it in school.” But about a month into her course, Rukmani got bitten by the economics bug. “So I decided to continue.”
Though she went on to do her MA in Economics as well, Rukmani feels her actual education came when she was doing a course at Madras Institute of Developmental Studies (MIDS). “Even after five years of studying economics, even after doing a course on Indian economic development, you don’t really understand the extent of inequality that prevails in our society or the many developmental issues that exist in our society – that is the kind of syllabus we studied.” It was in MIDS in 1983, that a project on slums in Madras served as an eye-opener for Rukmani.
“When you grow up in Chennai, slums are not anything new to you. You walk 2km and there is a slum. It’s not something you’re not aware of,” she said. But Rukmani soon found out that seeing a slum from the road is totally different from going inside and talking to the dwellers, trying to understand what their problems are. “This is when you start asking questions – why is it that people have to live in these kinds of conditions? Why are we where we are? That’s how I see economics – in terms of understanding how the system works, who are the ones who gain, who are the losers and why?” Rukmani took off from that project to do her PhD on urbanisation, the area she was working on in MIDS until she moved to MSSRF to work on food security.
Keeping up hope in bleak circumstances
What kind of a toll does this level of involvement with stark poverty and hunger have on a field researcher, I asked Rukmani. Does it ever get depressing? “Yes,” she confirmed. “You know the first time I went to Koraput (Orissa), I saw that it’s such a beautiful place – paddy fields, hills, it’s amazing, breathtaking. But then I went into these little remote hamlets…it’s like what you would imagine things were 50 years ago. Even today, such primitive conditions – huts, you rarely find a pukka (concrete) building… so, many things which kind of used to upset me the first time I visited…” she trailed off. “If you go to villages in Tamil Nadu it’s very different. There are streetlights, pukka houses, water points. There’s such a contrast, even today.
“You keep wondering, what are we doing after 70 years of independence, you know.”
Rukmani’s pain is not misplaced. Just a few days before I’d met her, there was a much-publicised incident of a man in Orissa who was found carrying the body of his wife who had died of tuberculosis. The hospital where she died had denied him an ambulance to take her back to their village 60 km away. “Luckily, someone spotted him and contacted the collector. But what if nobody spotted him? Conditions are bad… They still don’t have the basic necessities of life. That bothers you. You don’t have to be an economist for that to affect you.”
But you are making solutions. Isn’t that heartening, I asked her. “Sure, but the problems are so much. Take the Mahila Kisaan project, in the last five years, we’ve covered 3,500 farmers. That’s all you can do as an individual NGO.” Nevertheless, she confesses that she’s still haunted by the feeling of ‘at the end of the day, you’ve managed to do only this much’. Though this is a small number, the work that Rukmani and her team does undoubtedly benefits a large majority of the 3,500.
“Women farmers were trained on sustainable, integrated agricultural practices/techniques, which they report has reduced their cost of cultivation. Women farmers have come a long way and are more empowered than earlier.. You have to keep telling yourself that it’s how effectively you do it that matters. You have to be thankful for being part of an organisation like this and being able to do something.”
The participation of women in their programmes is particularly impressive, according to Rukmani. “The women in Orissa – you should see the way they speak at meetings, even meetings where District Collectors are present. We encourage women to attend gram sabhas, which happen at least twice a year.”
“Thanks to the self-help group (SHG) movement, women have become vocal. In a group of 20 women in an SHG, you’ll find at least two or three willing to come forward and talk about their problems. They also offer solutions to their problems.” Rukmani has seen instances where women demand that their gram panchayat spend money on public toilets, bathroom and garbage bins. “We even have cases where women have questioned men in cases of domestic violence…”
Being part of change in such a direct way, I asked Rukmani if she was wary of the youth-led net activism revolution (online petitions, Facebook protests, etc.). “Not at all,” she replied with no hesitation at all. “I find it’s so good to see so many youngsters affected by the larger problems in our society. I don’t want to belittle net activism & these efforts. I think being aware and being sensitive are very important. People sitting on their armchairs, commenting on things but not doing anything is also because they don’t know what to do about these things. We need more movements that people can join. That’s how I look at it. I see hope.”