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Hunger is a matter of structural anomalies. It cannot just be explained away by who holds the reins of power.
The “good news” is that India now stands at the 94th position on the Global Hunger Report 2020’s ranking of 107 countries. India has improved several notches over its 102nd rank last year, but is still firmly in the category of countries with a “serious” hunger problem. Only a handful of countries are doing worse than India, such as Rwanda (ranked 97), Afghanistan (99), Mozambique (103) and Chad (107).
The “good news” cannot hide the fact that that with an overall score of 27.2 India has performed worse than its neighbours, Pakistan (ranked 88), Bangladesh (75), Nepal (73) and Indonesia (70).
Seen any way, India has spent yet another year failing to tackle its massive chronic hunger problem. According to official figures, more than 14% of the population is undernourished and the child stunting rate is over 37.4%. One supposes this fits in with the strong belief in some quarters that India is a Vishwa Guru—teacher to the world—and can boldly claim to be a superpower in future.
The situation is such that news of starvation deaths is not uncommon despite excess of food grains stored in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India. Thousands of tonnes of these food grains go waste every year for a number of equally unjustifiable reasons.
Exactly three years ago, 11-year-old Santoshi, daughter of Koyli Devi of village Karimati in Jharkhand’s Simdega district had shocked the nation—she died asking for rice. Santoshi had barely had any food for nearly eight days. Around the same period—Narayana, Venkataramma and Subbu Maru Mukhri—three brothers, Dalits from Belehittala village in Gokarna, Karnataka, were reportedly denied rations because their ration cards were not linked to an Aadhaar database. It was reported about a year ago that of 42 alleged hunger-linked deaths, some 25 were preceded by Aadhaar-related issues.
The death of Bhukhal Passi, who lived in village Karma not too far from Bokaro in Jharkhand hit the headlines recently. As per activists, Bhukhal was unemployed, did not have a ration card and starved to death. Just a few days earlier, a CPI(ML) MLA had raised a question in the Jharkhand Assembly about alleged starvation deaths of more than a dozen people in the state over the last five years.
The food supplies minister refused to acknowledge these deaths in Jharkhand were due to starvation and offered a multitude of statistics to try and refute the MLA’s claim. He told the Assembly the Food Security Act, 2013, was being implemented in the state since 2015 and that more than 99.60% of the state’s people are covered by it. Yet people could easily recall that when the parties in power in the state today were in the Opposition some time back they, too, had cornered the government of former chief minister Raghubar Das over “starvation deaths”.
The precarious situation of the marginalised cannot just be explained away by who holds the reins of power. The need of the hour is to address the structural reasons behind the current state of affairs.
Growing inequality in the country is now a matter of concern for economists and policymakers. Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a best-selling book on inequality in the Western world, has in a research paper he co-wrote with Lucas Chancel shared data on how the share of wealth of the top 1% in India has grown bigger than ever before. A systematic analysis of the levels of inequality in India based on NSSO statistics has also been done by the economists Ishan Anand and Anjana Thampi. In their 2016 research paper, they demonstrated that the concentration of wealth has taken a quantum jump since the 1990s.
This means that India is shining for a few, which has an immediate connection with why there is more darkness in people’s lives on the opposite end of the income spectrum. That is why it is unsurprising that India is still in the “serious” category of hunger.
The Economic and Political Weekly had recently raised a basic policy question about how hunger is dealt with in India—it is not tackled as an issue to be dealt with directly and with urgency. Instead, it is placed under the larger economic development rubric, and then policymakers expect wealth to percolate down from above and solve the problem of hunger. Gaps in the way in which hunger and nutrition are perceived also prevents a proper estimation of entitlements that the government is supposed to make. The noted journal also raised the issue of tremendous “food budget squeeze” owing to shrinking expenditure by the government. Thus growing hunger is linked to increasing dispossession, rising migration and privatisation of social sector services, “which are more expensive than public sector provision”.
How does one comprehend the anomalous situation of persistent and pervasive food security crisis despite the global rate of food production consistently hitting higher registers than the rate of population growth? The EPW suggests an answer in the fact that hunger can be dealt with only by implementing “policies of income redistribution, which respond to objectives of social justice rather than economic efficiency as perceived by neo-liberalism”.
A related question naturally arises: why is the worsening situation of hunger not generating any outrage in society? Acknowledge it or not, hunger and nutrition are unimportant issues in Indian politics. A study of debates in Parliament revealed that merely 3% of questions raised pertained to children. Of these, only 5% related to early childhood care and development. Yet it is a fact that India has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world, as Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen also point out in their 2013 book, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.
Then comes the silence of the articulate sections of our society over chronic hunger and the state’s massive failure to ameliorate the situation. The foremost reason for the conspiracy of silence seems to be elite-caste dominance over popular narratives. Whether it be India’s worsening health situation or pervasive hunger, in a caste-ridden society the elite and upper caste remain largely aloof. The social composition of the hungry includes a majority from the tribal, Dalits or Other Backward Classes.
More than 75 years ago, when Bengal witnessed one of its worst famines, in which around 2.1-3 million people died, members of the famous left-wing cultural group IPTA undertook a nationwide campaign to tell the country “Bhookha Hai Bengal—Bengal is Hungry”.
Is it not ironic that no such nationwide campaign is visible today to create awareness about hunger in the 21st century? Undoubtedly, the situation is not as grave as in the past, but a large part of India is still hungry, undernourished and condemned to die an avoidable death in this era of plenty. What is worse, there seems to be plenty of debate about who is poor, how poor, and where poverty exists but there is too little action to solve it. It is as Dushyant Kumar, poet of modern Hindi literature, famous for his ghazals, had written: Bhookh hai toh sabr kar/ Roti nahin toh kya hua/ Aajkal Dilli mein hai/ Zer-e-behas yeh muddaa.
The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.