Hunger amidst prosperity: of what use is fast growth?

Government spokespersons, business people and others loyal to the present ruling dispensation are bragging a lot about the India growth story. We are told that India’s projected annual GDP growth rate of around 7.3% will outstrip that of China (around 6.5% in 2017) making it the fastest growing economy in the world. This, of course, overlooks the fact that the base year and methodology for calculating GDP in India was changed after the Narendra Modi government took office.

China’s GDP in April 2018 was estimated at $25.24 trillion in purchasing power party (PPP) terms as compared to $ 10.39 trillion for India, as per the IMF World Economic Outlook for 2018. Per capita GDP in PPP terms in China was estimated at $18,066 in 2018, India’s $7,784. The poverty ratio in China was estimated at around 4.56% in 2016 compared to 21.56% for India (2012).

It is also being said that India will be the engine of future global economic growth, with a $2.6 trillion economy in nominal terms that will surpass France and Japan (both report per capita incomes above $44,000 in 2018) soon; that we have gone  several notches up the ladder in the ease of doing business, ranking 100 out of 190 economies in 2017, and in the index of competitiveness among countries in the world, ranking 40 among 137 countries. But amidst this euphoria and feeling of so-called prosperity, we cannot escape the harsh realities of India with severe hunger persisting amidst plenty.

The 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report published by Welt Hunger Wilfe and Concern Worldwide depicts a depressing picture of the extent and severity of hunger in India despite all these boasts about its high and fast-growing economy. It notes that the levels of hunger in 51 countries, including India, are still serious or alarming.

India ranks 103 among 119 countries in the GHI. The report notes that India, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa figure among those regions and countries that report severe levels of hunger. What is appalling is that some African and Asian countries fare better than India. For instance, the GHI rank for Sri Lanka is 61, Myanmar (68), Nepal (72), Indonesia (73), Gambia (75), Kenya (77) and Bangladesh (86). India was a notch better than Uganda (105) and Pakistan (106). 

The GHI considers four dimensions namely, undernourishment — the share of the population that is undernourished due to insufficient calorie intake; child wasting — share of children under five years with acute undernutrition; child stunting — share of children under five years reporting chronic undernutrition, and child mortality — the mortality rate of children below five years. Those countries with GHI scores ranging between 20 to 34.5 were categorised as afflicted with severe hunger; those above 35 as alarming, and 50 and above as extremely alarming.

The report raises concern about whether the world can achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2, which seeks to end hunger, ensure food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030. Its projections suggest that at the pace of hunger reduction observed since 2000, about 50 countries will fail to reach low hunger levels as defined by the GHI scale even by 2030.

Although the poverty ratio has declined in India over the last 70 years (from around 57.66% in 1951 to about 21.56% in 2012, the latest year for which poverty statistics are available), the World Inequality Report 2018 notes that income inequalities in India have increased rapidly after 1980. It notes that the top 10% earners accounted for 55% of India’s national income.

An Oxfam report (India Inequality Report 2018: Widening Gaps) notes that the richest 1% got 73% of the wealth, whereas 67 crore Indians saw only 1% growth in their wealth. The top 1% of India’s population accounted for 22% of income in 2016. It notes further that the Gini coefficient (a measure of the level of inequality) of wealth in India, was 0.83 in 2016 which placed India among those countries with high levels of inequality. While India’s economic growth rate in recent years has averaged around 6 to 7% or more this growth has mostly benefited a few rich. 

The per capita net availability of food grains in India has risen from around 385 grams per day in 1951 to about 518 grams per day in 2017. As per the Food Corporation of India (FCI) in July 2018 the FCI had rice and wheat stocks of over 65 million metric tonnes which was well above the government’s buffer stock norm of 41.12 million metric tonnes as on July 1 every year. Due to lack of adequate storage facilities these food grain stocks are mostly stored in the open and get damaged due to the vagaries of weather or are destroyed by pests. Rather than distributing these excess food grain stocks to the poor and needy, the government prefers them to rot or get eaten by rats.

Amartya Sen in his famous book ‘Famines and Poverty’ (1981) noted that millions perished in the infamous Bengal famines witnessed during 1943-44, not due to the lack of food but rather due to the lack of entitlements or access to food. It is ironic that India, which expects its food grain output to rise to around 285 million tonnes in 2018, and with food grain stocks in FCI godowns overflowing, still ranks among those countries reporting severe levels of hunger.

While India is getting ready to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, it is sad to note that Gandhi’s dream of wiping away the tear from every Indian’s eyes and making the poor the pivot of our development programmes still remains a distant dream.

(The author is an economist)

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Hunger amidst prosperity: of what use is fast growth?

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