A United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) report released last week says that a staggering 230 million—or 21%—of India’s population is undernourished.
Poverty is one thing. Malnourishment is a different beast. Amartya Sen calls poverty the deprivation of basic capabilities—not simply lowness of income. Few deprivations are as detrimental as undernourishment, which has dismal instrumental effects on economic productivity and income attainment.
Rural Indians almost exclusively engage in physical labour. Undernourishment, therefore, certainly hinders employment; losing out on wages in turn affects calorie consumption. And the positive feedback cycle continues, only damaging health further.
According to WFP, the proportion of undernourishment in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab has increased in recent years. Anaemia incidence has reached shocking levels for certain demographics. In Bihar, 89% of rural children are anaemic.
To be sure, India is not alone: a companion UN Food and Agriculture Organization report says the world’s hungry numbered 923 million in 2007—an increase of at least 80 million since the 1990s. Recent high food prices are partly to blame.
Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has written about the “capacity to aspire”, the poor’s conception of the future. Appadurai has argued that wealthier individuals—because of material well-being, power or dignity —have a greater sense of their horizons of opportunity than the poor do.
Tackling rural poverty, therefore, must be about fostering aspirations, about empowering entrepreneurial individuals to better their own situations.
WFP notes that high food prices are also, curiously, an opportunity for poor farmers. High prices mean farmers can garner larger profits on their harvests and break their cycle of poverty. What this means, though, is that provision of public goods—such as efficient water infrastructure—is key. And farmers need a government-sponsored crutch—or safety nets—as they substitute to higher-priced crops.
They certainly can’t do it alone, but rural India should be given an opportunity to improve. Imagine the fruits of a truly vibrant, and healthy, rural sector.
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