Tackle hunger

India’s abject failure to address hunger and malnutrition has been laid bare yet again by its poor ranking — 67th of 84 countries — on a global hunger index put together by the International Food Policy Research Institute. The fact that it is home to 42 per cent of the world’s underweight children in the under-5 age group has resulted in the poor ranking.

This is reason for concern as child malnutrition and hunger have multiple implications. Underweight children are more prone to poor health. Half of all child deaths and nearly a quarter of cases of disease among children can be traced to malnourishment.

Malnourished children are more likely than others not to reach their full physical or mental potential. This affects their performance in school, with implications for later employment as well. Growth retardation is irreversible. So if 42 per cent of India’s under-5 children are underweight it means that the mental and physical growth of a substantial proportion of its population will be impaired, undermining the capacity of this section to meet life’s many challenges.

India, which sees itself as an equal competitor of China in the race for big power status, would do well to take a look at how its giant neighbour has tackled the hunger problem. China’s problems of poverty and hunger were as serious as that of India. Yet it has done an admirable job in tackling it as evident from its ninth ranking on the hunger index. It is not a shortage of foodgrains that is responsible for India’s hunger problem but poverty, which denies millions the means to access food. What is needed is radical reform, especially in the area of land ownership, to address rural poverty and related problems like hunger.

India boasts of the second fastest economic growth rate in the world. But this achievement seems hollow when one considers that many Indians continue to suffer severe hunger, even starvation. Economists have focussed on the health of country’s foreign exchange reserves.

They should give priority to the malnutrition question instead. After all, even the World Bank has said that physical impairments caused by malnutrition knock 3 per cent off a country’s GDP. The human tragedy unleashed by hunger has failed to move our politicians and officials to tackle the problem on a war footing. Will the argument that it is in the economic interest to address it, push them to act?

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