Making Saarc Food Bank operational
The 4th Board Meeting of the SaarcFood Bank (SFB) was held in Dhaka on October 27-28. This was a follow-up of the earlier three meetings, the first and the second of which were held in Colombo in October, 2008 and February, 2009 respectively, and the third one in Kabul in November, 2009. These meetings are taking place keeping the launching of the activities of the SFB in abeyance.
An "Agreement on Establishing the Saarc Food Bank" was signed in New Delhi on April 3, 2007 by the foreign ministers of the Saarc countries, excepting the Kingdom of Bhutan that was represented by the minister for labour and human resources.
The agreement, which superseded the "Agreement on Establishing the SAARC Food Security Reserve," has two objectives; (a) to act as a regional food security reserve for the Saarc member countries during normal times, food shortages and emergencies; and (b) to provide regional support to national food security efforts, foster inter-country partnerships and regional integration, and tackle regional food shortages through collective action.
Other salient provisions of the agreement include reserve of food grains (rice and wheat), quality of the reserve, withdrawal of food grains, procedures for the release of food grains from the reserve, replenishment of the reserve, procedures for the withdrawal of food grains by a member country from its own share of the reserve, determination of price, institutional arrangements, and functions of the food bank board.
The prices, and terms and conditions of payment in respect of the food grains would be subject of direct negotiation between the concerned member countries based on guidelines for price determination to be approved by the food bank board. The agreement sought to rationalise and improve the provisions on the procedures for withdrawal and release of food grains.
Under the agreement, the food bank has been authorised to start functioning with a total reserve of 241,580 tons of food grains, of which India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives are to contribute 153,000 tons, 40,000 tons, 40,000 tons, 4,000 tons, 4,000 tons, 1,420 tons, 200 tons and 180 tons respectively.
Quoting a Saarc official, local news agency UNB reports that the two-day meeting of the food bank board at Dhaka deliberated on ways to make the "much-touted" SFB effective and operational for supplying food during emergencies, addressing the victims' demands.
But the SFB is not yet able to reserve adequate food grains to ensure regional food security. At present, around 243,000 tons of food grains -- 153,000 tons in India, 40,000 tons each in Bangladesh and Pakistan, 4,000 tons each in Nepal and Sri Lanka, 1,200 tons in Afghanistan, 200 tons in Bhutan and 180 tons in Maldives -- are available with the SFB. The meeting proposed increasing the strategic reserve at the SFB to 400,000 tons from the present 243,000 tons, which may later be increased to one million tons.
The factors that reportedly influenced the meeting in arriving at the decision of increasing the strategic reserve to 400, 000 tons are: (a) rapid growth of population outpacing declining agricultural land in the South Asian region; (b) increasing number of hungry people putting the future of food security at risk in the South Asian region; and (c) inadequacy of the SFB to address food crisis during any emergency, as well as food security in the South Asian region.
While the above concerns of the board deserve appreciation, the fact remains that the need for making the SFB effective and operational early cannot also be undermined. Critics say the earlier Saarc Food Security Reserves set up in 1988 had failed to deliver anything due to lack of political will in certain quarters in the Saarc. Many analysts are expressing doubt and uncertainty "in the backdrop of inordinate delay in putting the joint food security stock in business."
While addressing the inaugural ceremony of the 4th meeting of SFB as chief guest, Food and Disaster Minister Abdur Razzaque said: "The Saarc member countries need to focus on several issues -- food-grain pricing, operational guidelines and delivery systems -- to make the Food Bank operational."
Earlier, while speaking as chief guest at a seminar titled "Saarc Food Bank and expectation of hungry people," organised by EquityBD and Agriculture Reporters' Forum at the National Press Club on the eve of the 4th meeting of the SFB, the food and disaster management minister termed the overall activities of the Saarc as slow, but expressed hope that it would be able to achieve the common goal of the region. Speakers taking part in the discussion opined that SFB was not working for poor people or natural disaster-affected people since its establishment in 2007.
In its editorial of October 30, The Daily Star wrote: "The advantages of the food bank would be initiation of low prices of the products and deferred payment system for the people in the emergency situations. Transportation cost would also be less, as the food reserve will be available in different places in border areas of the member nations."
Anyway, it is the expectation of about 23% of the world population living in South Asian region, particularly of about 40% of world poor and 35% of the world's malnourished here, that the SFB will rise to the occasion to materialise the objectives of the Agreement on Establishing Saarc Food Bank.