Politicians and chronic hunger

Politicians and chronic hunger
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First Published: Fri, Apr 03 2009. 12 31 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Apr 03 2009. 12 31 AM IST
The director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told the Financial Times last week that the number of chronically hungry has passed a staggering one billion globally.
While gains had been made since the 1990s—when 20% of the developing world was chronically hungry—that has been reversed now. Currently, 18% of the developing world is chronically hungry.
How did this happen? Food prices have skyrocketed since 2005. Weather patterns have affected crops. Demand for food has increased in developing economies. Meanwhile, the global financial crisis has only exacerbated food woes. A slowing economy has increased unemployment, while credit has tightened. This has all added up to increased difficulty in feeding mouths.
Hunger has been—and will continue to be—a central issue for the impending general election. And mastering it could mean controlling the Lok Sabha. Easing the burden will require long-term investments in agricultural productivity. Instead, politicians have focused on short-term fixes to garner votes.
Last week, the Congress unfurled a poverty manifesto, including a national food security Act. The Act will provide for 25kg of rice or wheat per month to impoverished families at Rs3 per kg. Wheat currently trades at Rs11-plus per kg in wholesale markets in Delhi, according to FAO. Subsidizing around 70% of the cost of wheat will be a major burden to an already deficit-bloated government.
That costly food subsidy could be better spent investing in higher productivity agriculture. Instead, farmers and agricultural affiliates will have no incentive to sell grains in the market at a lower price. By reselling subsidized grain, the government is in effect encouraging prices to remain high.
Yet, for now, the Congress and other parties are looking to accumulate votes. The costly promise might very well pay off in Andhra Pradesh or Kerala, where the Congress is looking to make inroads on Leftist control. Grain at a lower price is a key issue for voters.
While handouts might win votes, they certainly won’t solve hunger problems in the long term. But politicians look keen on worrying about that only after the elections.
What can be done about hunger in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 03 2009. 12 31 AM IST