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India is still world's hunger capital

Last updated: 27 August, 2009
Prasenjit Chowdhury

In Perspective

With nearly a fourth of its 1.1 billion popu-lation hungry, India indeed is the world’s hunger capital.

As more and more reports of the global financial meltdown are pouring in, digest this. It made the world scurry to a grim one billion hungry people, a fact perceived as a grave threat to global peace and security. The UN estimates that hunger now affects one in six people, compounded by factors such as war, drought or floods, high food prices and poverty. Most of the hunger in a world of plenty results from grinding, deep-rooted poverty.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there are 100 million more hungry people this year, meaning they consume fewer than 1,800 calories a day. A spokesman of the World Food Programme said hungry people rioted in at least 30 countries last year, leading to, most notably, deadly riots in Haiti sparked off by soaring food prices to spiral into the overthrow of the prime minister.

“A hungry world is a dangerous world,” he said, “without food, people have only three options: They riot, they emigrate or they die. None of these are acceptable options.” Are not the Kalahandi district of Orissa and Lalgarh of West Bengal illustrative examples of the observation?

Absent State

Commentators note that in the 1990s, when India began to move towards a free market, the Naxalite movement revived in some of the poorest and most populous Indian states. Part of the reason for this is that some livelihood and living-related issues like agriculture, public health, education and poverty-eradication have been given a short shrift, exposing large sections of the population to disease, debt, hunger and starvation. The Indian state is conspicuously absent in most backward areas of the country.


Notwithstanding plaudits such as Thomas Friedman celebrating India as a success story of globalisation, it must be put on record that India has a terrible record in tackling hunger and malnutrition. Amartya Sen has repeatedly pointed out how the ‘very poor’ in India get a small share of the cake that information technology and related developments generate.

India ranked 66th on the 2008 Global Hunger Index of 88 countries, as per a report released by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
India has the highest number of undernourished people in the world — 230 million — added to which 1.5 million children are at risk of becoming malnourished because of rising global food prices.

The report of the UN World Food Programme is quite unflattering. More than 27 per cent of the world’s undernourished population lives in India, of whom 43 per cent children (under five years) are underweight. The figure is higher than the global average of 25 per cent and even beats sub-Saharan Africa’s figure of 28 per cent. Nearly 50 per cent of child deaths in India occur due to malnutrition.

Left out
“In no case should we allow citizens to go hungry,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admirably said in a meeting of state chief secretaries to take stock of the drought-like conditions in parts of the country. He seemed to be aware that non-utilisation of funds by a few states under Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna and National Food Security Mission, the two major schemes for the agriculture sector launched by the Centre, is another factor why, despite the element of goodwill, the target beneficiaries remain outside the loop of development.

The National Food Security Act of the UPA government is a step in the right direction as it envisages food-security-for-all. But the task of expanding our public distribution system must also take into account weeding out bogus cardholders and hoarders, while a stricter vigil has to be kept on both the quantity and quality of the available foodstock under PDS. Incorrect information, inaccurate measurement of household characteristics, corruption and inefficiency must be plugged.

Since independence, the government has formulated more than 50 programmes targeting the poor to alleviate poverty. The real challenge facing India today is making wealth and entitlements not a monopoly of a clique of super elites.

The revamped version of the Garibi Hatao programme in 2007 listed farmer support, food security, housing for all, labour welfare, development of backward areas and e-governance. But we seem to suffer from known pathogens year after year. Hunger and poverty must end and we need not only goodwill but a vigorous state mechanism to ensure that.

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