Superpower of Hunger

Superpower of Hunger
In 2017, India has slipped down three ranks to 100 among 119 nations in the Global Hunger Index (GHI), beating even Bangladesh and North Korea in the race to the bottom. India has been placed in the “severe” category of nations suffering hunger pangs. And this although India is among the world’s largest producers of food grains, fruits and vegetables (second largest), milk (largest producer), fish (second largest), egg and poultry meat, and meat from livestock (fifth largest).

One reason for this tragic paradox is not far to seek. It’s the government. Consider this: an 11-year-old Jharkhand girl reportedly died of starvation because she didn’t have an Aadhaar-linked ration card. News reports said she died in her mother’s lap asking for rice; three Dalit brothers in Gokarna district in Karnataka died of starvation. It was reported that they had been denied food rations for six months, but the district administration denied it. The news of these deaths came around the same time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in Gujarat, ahead of the elections there, that he had allowed purchase of jewellery upto Rs 2 lakh without having to furnish the Aadhaar number or the PAN card. Meanwhile, in Jharkhand alone, 11 lakh ration cards have been cancelled because they were not linked with Aadhaar numbers. Different rules for different people.

The Aadhaar Act makes it clear that that no one will be denied food if they don’t have an Aadhaar card. But to cut down on social spending as well as to curb corruption in the delivery mechanism, the government is in a visible hurry to link the ration cards with biometric authentication. At the same time, despite no encouraging response of the few case studies in implementing cash transfers, it is aggressively pushing Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) so that it can totally get away from the monumental task of providing food to the needy through the vast network of public distribution shops (PDS). With no responsibility to maintain a creaky PDS system, the government will also not have the responsibility of maintaining an effective system of procurement for food crops. India’s poor can bid goodbye to their government.

There is no denying that India’s shameful record in tackling hunger has pushed down South Asia’s performance globally. Except for Pakistan (rank 106), all other South Asian countries are doing much better – Nepal (72), Myanmar (77), Bangladesh (88), Sri Lanka (84). China, with whom India wants to compete, is at rank 29. Published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Global Hunger Index (GHI) focuses annually on the international effort to combat hunger. In fact, India performs much worse than even Sub-Saharan Africa on the hunger front.

In 2016, India had ranked 97 among 118 developing nations, as usual faring worse than all its neighbours, except Pakistan. In the first such index prepared 12 years ago, India had ranked 96 among 119 countries. In effect then, India is now faring worse than where it stood in 2006. All these years, India’s GDP has remained on average at over 7%, except in the last few quarters. If there is anything that has grown sustainably through all the ups and downs of the economy, it is hunger.

More the hungry children, more the wasted lives. The best way to ascertain the wasting rate is to know the low weight-to-height index for children. More than 21% of India’s children are wasted. Only three other countries – Djibouti, Sri Lanka and South Sudan – have more than 20% of wasted children. If 21% of children in a country are wasted, is there a great economic future for that country? Whatever the government may claim, the truth is, you cannot build a superpower on hungry stomachs.

But hold on, our dismal performance doesn’t end here. A survey conducted by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau brings out yet another stark reality. Rural India is eating less than what it used to 40 years ago. According to a report: “On average, compared to 1975-79, a rural Indian now consumes 550 fewer calories and 13 gm protein, 5 mg iron, 250 mg calcium, and about 500 mg less Vitamin A. If rural India, home to 70% of India’s population, is eating less and remains undernourished, isn’t it cause for alarm? Sadly, though, one cannot find any prime-time media discussion on this.

Children below the age of three are consuming, on average, 80 ml of milk per day instead of the 300 ml they require. This data explains, in part, why in the same survey, 35% of rural men and women were found to be undernourished, and 42% of children underweight.” In fact, the malnutrition levels in South Asia are twice as high as in Sub-Saharan Africa. Considering that rural India comprises some 85 crore people out of India’s 130 crore people, one would think it was an appropriate subject for a midnight Parliament session.

While eliminating hunger is a complex and challenging task, it is not impossible. But despite the pious intentions of several prime ministers -– Indira Gandhi gave the call for Garibi Hatao, Manmohan Singh treated malnourishment as “a national shame”, and an emotional Narendra Modi had dedicated his government to the poor -- the task of designing appropriate and suitable economic policies is left to the mandarins in the bureaucracy who, unfortunately, are in the clutches of corporate economic thinking that views poverty eradication only from the prism of the failed ‘trickle down’ theory.

Removing poverty, hunger and malnutrition is not possible without focusing on agriculture. A recent US study has established that investments in agriculture are five times more effective in removing poverty than investments in building urban infrastructure. This is a significant finding that cannot be ignored simply because Indian economists, policy-makers and the bureaucracy are ideologically committed to market reforms and are systematically reducing investments in agriculture and the social sector. If a beginning has to be made to eliminate hunger by 2022, it has to begin by reinventing farming, by bringing in public sector investments into agriculture, because it is agriculture alone that can provide Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas.
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