National disgrace

If the word crisis is vastly overused, to speak of a country-wide nutrition and food crisis is, if anything, an understatement.

Despite what some critics have alleged, the crisis has several drivers, each one of which would be challenging enough on its own but which, taken together, seem to call for a radical restructuring that is hard to expect from a government mired in one financial scandal after another.

Therefore, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s rather hollow description that the findings of the Hunger and Malnutrition report, that about 42 per cent of India’s children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition, is a “national shame” is disgraceful in itself. The survey results indicate a catastrophic failure on the part of the world’s largest democracy to feed its poverty-stricken millions. It is also a grim reminder that Singh’s government, which has been in power at the Centre for seven continuous years, has followed policies that are anathema to the social commitments expected of it.

The findings of the survey, conducted across nine states by the Naandi Foundation, an independent charitable agency, comes at a time when the country’s legislators and non-governmental organisations are in heated debate over the drafting of a weak food security bill. The survey’s harsh truth has exposed that poverty and hunger persists in a country which has seen unprecedented growth in recent times.

The poor continue to be plagued by malnutrition, under-nourishment and stunted growth while the burgeoning middle class has suddenly begun to afford much better living standards. India has more hungry people than any country in the world. This is attested to by the 2010 Global Hunger Index which described national levels of hunger as ‘alarming’ with the country scoring lower than many Sub-Saharan African countries despite having a considerably higher GDP.

For the government, responding effectively to the food-malnutrition crisis will be extraordinarily difficult, especially when its seemingly endless policy documents, not to speak of botched up statistics on poverty alleviation, have so far achieved little.

The survey has brought home the unsavoury truth that while there is a food emergency, there is little agreement on what should be done to mitigate the problem. For a country recognised as a global player in key economic sectors, harnessing the power of science and technology for all should not be difficult, especially for the hungry millions who deserve and have a right to enough to eat.

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