Twelve-year-old Asha residing in a small village of Bankura, West Bengal, was seen eating leaves and twigs to curb her hunger. Tears rolled down her eyes as she forced herself toswallow these to stop the pain of hunger. There are many like her in this village.
In Mirgitand village in Jharkhand, Thakur Das thrusts hot glowing pokers into the stomach of his child. Everyone in the village is aware of the outcome. The child will scream loudly as the flesh begins to blister. Again and again, the poker will jab at his belly. The more the child screams, the happier everyone will be, because the villagers of Mirgitand in Jharkhand believe that the only way to cure the distended stomachs of their famished children is by jabbing them with hot pokers. India is one of the countries with the lowest reduction in hunger rate in the nine years since the last Global Hunger Index was calculated.
The position of India is constantly declining when it comes to providing food security to its children. Apartfrom Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of India’s neighbouring countries – Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, outrank India on this list. “At 31.4, India’s 2017 GHI score is at the high end of the‘serious’ category, and is one of the main factors pushing South Asia to the category of worst performing region on the GHI this year, followed closely by Africa South of the Sahara,” says the Global Hunger Index report by the International Food PolicyResearch Institute (IFPRI). Countries that manage to provide better food security to their people include Kenya, Malawi and even war-torn Iraq. Adding to the despair, it was noticed that the rate of wasting (low- weight for height) has also surged from 20% in 2005-06 to 21% as of 2015-2016.
Data from a report released by the United Nations showed that India is home to 190.7 million of hungry people and this indicates a 14.5% prevalence of hunger among the country’s total population. The data further revealed that 38.4% of children under five in India are stunted, while 51.4% of women in reproductive age are anaemic.The report defines stunting asthe result of long-term nutritional deprivation which may affect mental development, school performance and intellectual capacity.
Over 39%of Indian children under the age of five show diminutive growth while 15% are getting so little food that it is leading to deaths. If reports are to be believed, one out of every 20 children dies before his/her fifth birthday due to lack of food. India seems to have a pretty low place in most of the development indexes. In the world’s Human Development Index (HDI), India ranks 131 out of 168 countries andis in the company of all other South Asian countries except Sri Lanka (73). Sri Lanka is better placed than even China, which is ranked at 90. In terms of Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) for less than five years, India is ranked 126 out of 175 countries. India is home to 213 million children who go hungry as per the latest report of Global Hunger Index 2015.
The problem of hunger in India is not because the country is unable to produce enough food. The main problem is that of poverty. People lack money to spend on food or other necessary essentials. Total food grains production in India reached an all-time high of 251.12 million tonnes (MT) in FY15.
Rice and wheat production in the country stood at 102.54 MT and 90.78 MT, respectively. In the mid-60s India used to import 10 MT of food grains and that was just enough to feed its people. Agriculture plays a pivotal role in India’s economy. Over 58% of the rural households depend on agriculture as their principal means of livelihood. Census 2011 says there are 118.9 million cultivators across the country. In addition, there are 144 million employed as agricultural labourers. If we add the number of cultivators and agricultural labourers, it would be around 263 million or 22% of the population. More than 65% of the farmland in India consists of marginal and small farms.
Even though food production is at a record level, people are still going hungry in India. The problem persists. The government has failed to provide enough jobs. There is an oversupply of labour and hence the wages are depressed. The average wages in the growing service and construction sectors is usually well below the minimum prescribed by the government. There have been innumerable failures of food schemes.
According to an article by Mohan Guruswamy in the Deccan Chronicle, “Our poverty level is a calorie intake based level. The idea of defining poverty in terms of a poverty line was first proposed during the Indian Labour Conference in 1957. A working group under the Planning Commission then stipulated a poverty line of`20 per person per month. They derived this poverty line using consumer expenditure data and a caloric norm. The understanding was that anybody spending less than this amount is poor because he or shedoes not have the purchasing power to buy enough food that met the caloric norm. The present official poverty line is based on the norm that the averageperson in rural India should be able to consume 2,400 calories and the average person in urban India should be able to consume 2,100 calories.”
The rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. According to a report by Credit Suisse India’s total household wealth stood at $5 trillion while the country is home to 2,45,000 millionaires. The number of ultra-rich in the country is expected to reach 3,72,000 while the total household income is likely to grow by 7.5% annually to touch $7.1 trillion by 2022. India's wealth growth of $451 billion represents the 8th largest wealth gain globally by any country.
Media neglecting the vital issue
Half of the population in India is under the age of 25 and yet the government is unable to protect them. Issue like hunger and public health are now being dwarfed by raging contentions around beef eating and censorship. The media seems to evade the pressing problems. No media outrage is witnessed around India’s failure to provide food security. Economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen actually went through editorials in India’s major newspaper for thelast six months of 2012 and found that only 1% dealt with health for their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions.
India has always been influenced by its caste structure. Though the country faces an alarming food and health crisis, the upper castes in India seem insensitive to the issue. India’s dying children are largely Adivasis and Dalits. A 2011 study published in the Economic and Political Weekly, shows that underweight rates are 53% higher for Dalit children as compared to Hindu upper castes. The figure is evenhigher for Adivasis at 69%. Shudra children have underweight rates which is 35% higher than upper caste groups – better than Dalits and Adivasis but still significantly worse than India’s elites.
What can be done?
Providing healthy and nutritious food to its citizens is a liability of any government. Successful execution of free food schemes pertaining to new mothers and pregnant women would be a beneficiary step towards the same. It should be mandatory not to waste food and offenders must be fined. Innumerable schemes have been launched by the central as well as state governments in India but implementation remains an issue. Food Security bills have been promised but their progress has been slow.
According to law, since 2014, firms must spend 2% of profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR), loosely defined as doing good to the community. A recent report in The Economist said that only large companies—those with domesticprofits consistently over Rs50 million (about $780,000), orRs 5 billion in net assets, or turnover of over Rs10 billion are affected, and they can opt to give nothing, as long as they explain why. A study of listed firms by CRISIL, a credit-rating agency, foundthat over 1,100 firms had spent Rs83 billion on good causes in the 2015-16 financial year, up by 22% on the previous year. That is roughly the budget of a small government department, though tiny compared with the annual $12 billion thatAmerican firms spend on CSR. How much of this is spent on actual philanthropy? How much is wasted in needless PR operations and conferences?