Deepna Nandiga is currently a Business Development intern in Acumen Fund’s office in Hyderabad. She recently finished a masters degree in Anthropology from Columbia University, with a concentration in International Development. Previously, she worked with Accenture as a Business Consultant and also worked with Relief International, a humanitarian aid and development organization where her work was focused mainly on planning programs in public health, women’s education and microcredit in Darfur, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Prior to joining Acumen Fund, she worked for six months with Bhumi, a growing social enterprise with initiatives that target underprivileged communities in Hyderabad.
Rather recently, I found myself as guest in the home of Srinivas Yadav, a small holding sweet-orange farmer living in the Nalgonda District of Andhra Pradesh, an area located on the outskirts of Hyderabad. We ate rice and chicken curry off banana leafs on the floor of his home at lunchtime, which was truly royal treatment. Serving meat as part of a meal is quite an expensive undertaking for farmers like Srinivas, despite owning a substantial portion of land and receiving crop yields of up to ten tons per acre in good months.
I was flanked on either side by a senior professor from the Hyderabad Agriculture University, two government officials who work on subsidy schemes for farmers and a director of Safal, an organization that tries to provide a direct link between fruit and vegetable growers and consumers set up jointly by the Indian government and Mother Dairy Ltd. The purpose of the visit was for Acumen Fund to better understand the problems Indian farmers face and to look for opportunities for innovation in the highly inefficient producer-to-consumer agricultural supply chain. At one point in conversation with the professor from the Agriculture University, he mentioned the recently proposed government Right to Food Act. On further inquiry, he said, “Yes, in your country you have rights like the right to free speech and the right to bear arms and in our country we have the right to food for every person.” His words made a strong impact on me. The thought of having to guarantee something so basic to human survival and something I take for granted on a daily basis shifted my paradigms of freedom and human rights. Like many other experiences during my time here in India, it was quite the reality check.
Unlike the Constitution of the United States that protects mainly the infringement of civil rights, since its conception in 1950, the Indian Constitution ensures socio-economic freedoms as well. This is for good reason; the 2006 National Family Health Survey showed that the child under-nutrition rate in India is 46%, almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa, which is economically poorer than India (Source: India Development Blog) The Right to Food Act, which is currently under debate in the Indian Congress is the latest iteration of the government’s legislative attempt to end hunger.
In a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi has made a strong pitch for providing the 35 kg of cereals at Rs.3 a kg that has been proposed under the new Act each month to the poor. The Food Security Act has also received a thumbs-up from Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen, famous for his human-development centered approach to solving problems of poverty. The current debate focuses on the terms of the Act and on defining the threshold of the below poverty line (BPL) population. By one committee estimation, 77% of the Indian population or 836 million people are not able to spend more than Rs. 20 a day, which will not buy more than two square meals per day. (Source: Deccan Chronicle). Ironically, often those facing hunger are the farmers themselves. Lately, every news report I watch mentions the dire state of farmers due to the unusually dry weather of the last few months over the Indian plains. I’ve learned however, that weather is not the only limiting factor in farmers’ inability to provide for themselves. An estimated 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh over the last 15 years.
India’s hunger problem more than anything else, lies in inefficient distribution. In fact, India is the third largest agriculture producer in the world, following China and the United States. As I witnessed at Srinivas Yadav’s farm, lack of access to markets, transport inability, a lack of cold storage options and a number of other reasons relating to supply chain inefficiencies are to blame.
In spite of these bleak statistics, the day’s conversations on the farm left me feeling optimistic. It was an example of the times I get most excited about my work here. Acumen Fund is finding innovative market solutions in places where government policy and humanitarian aid falter. I was reminded of Acumen Fund’s unique place in not only encouraging creative new business models, but also in impacting legislative and human rights imperatives in meaningful ways. My belief in the need for Acumen Fund’s work (and for smart solutions in sectors like agriculture and nutrition) in countries like India was re-affirmed. It’s heartening to be a part of an organization like this that is working to fill this vital gap.