India has been ranked at the 103rd position among 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) — with zero being the best score — according to a report from Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide. Its low ranking indicates “serious levels of hunger” and is reason for grave concern. Hunger, malnutrition and starvation have significant impact on an individual’s well-being and capacity to learn, play and work. Hunger not only leaves a person listless and without energy but also, when it extends over a period of time, adversely impacts her physical and mental development. Thus, it has implications not just for the individual but also for the society and the economy. Shamefully, with the exception of Pakistan, all of India’s neighbours are positioned better than India on the GHI. Myanmar, for instance, has been ranked 68th. India’s economy is huge and yet, large numbers of its people go to bed hungry. In the past, food shortages were blamed for hunger. Thus, India faced hunger, even starvation, when supply of grains fell due to drought or when food imports shrank for one reason or another. India now produces bumper crop year after year and is an exporter of grains and other food items today. Still, hunger stalks the land. Why is this so? Why does hunger persist amidst plenty?
For one, the Public Distribution System (PDS) is in a mess. Middlemen divert grains meant for ration shops to the black market. Those who depend on PDS food items are denied access to subsidised food due to corruption and since they cannot afford grains sold in the regular shops, they are left hungry. Experts are drawing attention to the wastage of food in India. It is estimated that India wastes around 7% of its annual food production and almost 30% of fruits and vegetables. Without proper warehouses for storage, food grains are left lying in the open, where they rot due to exposure to the elements or are eaten up by rats. Lack of cold storage facilities results in fruits and vegetables rotting even before they reach markets. It is estimated that only 4% of food moves through cold chains in India.
Increasingly, farmers prefer cultivating commercial crops like vanilla, rubber or roses as global demand for such products and profit margins are high. Production of food grains and vegetables is falling consequently and could culminate in serious food shortages and thus worsen the hunger situation. Reforms in agriculture and agri-businesses, improving warehousing infrastructure and reforming the PDS are necessary to tackle India’s hunger problem. It is a shame that a country with a $2.6 trillion economy is still unable to feed its people. Our growth story rings hollow amidst widespread hunger.