Home / Politics / The hungry republic

I want you to consider some well-known, oft-repeated facts:

• About half of India’s children are malnourished, a record poorer than the world’s poorest area, sub-Saharan Africa.

• India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry — about 230 million people — according to the World Food Programme.

• India is the world’s second-largest grower of rice and wheat, and more than 50 million tonnes of foodgrains lie in government warehouses.

What’s your reaction?

Most of us will probably shrug, sigh a bit and say, yes, it’s terrible, but we are like this only.

My reaction isn’t that different. I feel deeply, I feel ashamed, but I am not sure what I can do, except make you aware that all is far from well in emerging India.

Jean Dreze, a respected Indian economist, once said the government can’t get away with large-scale famine — not in 21st century India with its 24/7 television — but it can get away with chronic hunger.

Hunger in modern India isn’t about protruding bellies and sunken faces, though you will find that as well sometimes. It’s about not getting enough to eat and not getting food nutritious enough to live, learn and flourish, so people, especially women, are locked into an unending cycle of poverty.

Despite India’s great economic leap, under-nutrition has assumed epidemic, shameful proportions. Nutritional deficiencies now plague nearly three-fourths of all women and children.

Indian children suffer exceptionally high rates of malnutrition because their mothers are made to eat last and least through their lives, even when pregnant, when they need nutrition most.

Malnourished women give birth to malnourished children: every fourth newborn Indian baby is underweight, or 40% of all babies (the figure for China is 7%). It’s a cycle perpetuated through the centuries.

The issue, as Harsh Mander told me, is not starvation deaths. “People in this country are living with starvation, not dying," said Mander, known to many people as the bureaucrat who resigned from service after the 2002 Gujarat riots. A gentle, smiling man of great sensitivity and intellect, Mander works without pay as a Commissioner for the Supreme Court of India.

For the last nine years, in the course of public-interest litigation first filed by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties in 2001, the Supreme Court has essentially set India’s hunger policies. Assisted by a dedicated band of court-appointed officials, lawyers and activists, the court has overseen some successes, not least the spread of the world’s largest programme to feed children in school and keep them there, the mid-day meal scheme. But state governments violate or simply ignore orders.

A nation’s highest court and a small band of those who care cannot alone tackle a problem as monumental as hunger. The biggest problem is that hunger is rarely an issue in public debates and electoral politics.

This, then, is the time to push the hunger debate to the nation’s centrestage.

First, even if most of her colleagues could not really care less, the country’s biggest party has a leader who really cares about the dispossessed. Without Sonia Gandhi’s intervention, the Right to Information Act (RTI) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) would not be the open, inclusive legislations they now are.

Second, not wholly, but in some small measure, young, urban India is getting a conscience. That will help in galvanising not just debate but action. A host of India’s brightest are already using their formidable intellects and energy to drive change in areas that would have shunned a generation ago.

Third, India will never live out its promise and hype if it does not deliver what Chilean poet and Nobel prize winner Pablo Neruda called the “justice of eating".

Though agricultural growth per capita is declining, hunger in India does not exist because there isn’t enough food. The problem is getting it to those who need it, and that is where the government’s myriad programmes and vast, corrupt infrastructure is failing.

This is the injustice that must be removed, and that is why the case in the Supreme Court is commonly called the right-to-food case, deriving its legal strength from the constitutional right to life.

To be sure, there are some successes, and you will read about them on the pages of this newspaper in the days to come. The battle against hunger has to shift gears soon.

The rise in global food prices and domestic food inflation is pushing India’s poor to the brink. While general inflation declined from a 13-year high of more than 12% in July 2008 to 9.89% in February 2010, inflation for food articles tripled, from 5 per cent to more than 17.79 per cent during the same period.

As those who have jousted with India’s central and state governments over the years will tell you, there are formidable obstacles ahead.

Already, there are strong indications the Food Security Act falls far short of what India’s poor need, offering, for instance, 25 kg of grain to poor families (defining who is poor is another contentious issue, but I won’t get into that here) instead of the 35kg mandated by the Supreme Court during right-to-food hearings.

Sonia Gandhi will probably intervene, as she did with the Right To Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. Even so, one woman, however powerful, cannot feed a hungry country. How India collectively reacts will determine if it can become a truly great nation, or remain a famished, Third World pretender.

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