November , 2017
It is not famine but hunger which is the problem
13:57 pm

Kishore Kumar Biswas

People suffering from severe hunger is not a thing of the past despite progress in many other fronts. Even in the late 1980s when the reporter had been an undergraduate student, a number of economists were doubtful about the possibility of providing enough food at that time to all the citizens of the developing countries including India. As of now, the quantum of food, either of the world as a whole or in an individual country is as high as to provide for every citizen of the country. Some local disturbance of food grains may be possible at  any time but that is a different matter.

To guarantee adequate food for all has now been possible for the first time in history as there is an enormous expansion of productive power. It is in this context that the persistence of chronic hunger and the recurrence of famines must be seen more as a political issue. In many countries it is a tragedy that a section of the population has to spend most nights in a year without adequate food but the political parties rule year after year without facing heavy opposition.

Is hunger related to food availability?

Hunger is not always caused by availability of foodThere are quite a few instances when deaths due to hunger occurred even with greater availability of food supply. Indeed some famines have occurred in periods of peak food availability for the economy as a whole. One can cite the Bangladesh famine of 1974.

Professor Amartya Sen (Poverty and Famines, 1981, Oxford University Press) has propagated the idea  lack of exchange entitlement as the cause of famine or hunger death. What does this mean? This means it is not the quantum of food available in the market which matters. The real point is the purchasing power of an individual or family to purchase that food. If a person lacks the means to acquire food, the presence of food in the market is not much comfort. To understand hunger, one has to look at peoples entitlements, i.e., what commodity bundles (including food) they can make their own.

This can be exemplified by the instance of the Great Bengal Famine. In 1942-43, there had been a catastrophe in the province of Bengal. Not less than 15 lakh people died. Many consider the actual deaths had been close to 50 lakhs. At that time there was no shortage of food. The food production in 1942 was more than that of 1941. Then why did the famine not start in the previous year? This can be explained in terms of exchange entitlement.

Hunger and famine death due to lack of exchange entitlement

The first affected section of the Bengal Famine or hunger death was the fishermen of East Bengal. At that time there was a British intelligence failure regarding Japanese invasion of India to fight against British. The British intelligence department thought that Japan would invade India through the north-eastern part of it. That part is full of rivers. And hence to destroy the navigability system by acquiring the boats from the fishermen was their first precautionary measure. As a result the fishermen community lost their means of livelihood. That means they began to lose exchange entitlement to purchase food available in the market. Food was available in the market but they could not buy it due to lack of purchasing power.

In a private ownership market economy, the entitlement set of a person is determined by his original bundle of ownership (what is called hisendowment”) and the various alternative bundles he can acquire starting from each initial endowment, through the use of trade and production. A person has to starve if his entitlement set does not include any commodity bundle with adequate amounts of food. A personis reduced to starvation if there is some change either in his endowment like alienation of land, or loss of labour power due to ill health, fall in wages, rise in food prices, loss of employment, drop in the price of the good he produces and sells.

Some economies of the world have not experienced famines in any real sense in recent years, but have nevertheless suffered from chronic hunger on a regular but non-acute basis. Examples can be found in South Asia, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, aswell as in Latin America, in addition to parts of Africa. In a sense, combating endemic hunger is a harder problem than conquering famines, since the extreme deprivation involved in famine situations can be speedily remedied, in a way that a sustained eradication of entitlement inadequacies for all sections of the population cannot be easily achieved. The approach of analysing famines in terms of lack of exchange entitlements of particular occupation groups has been used in recent years to study many famines, e.g., the Bengal famine of 1943, the Sahel famines in the 1970s, the Bangladesh famine of 1974, the Ethiopian famines of 1973-85, the Malawi (in fact, Nyasaland) famine of 1949- 50, and also various historical famines.

The Indian reality

India has been able to eradicate famine. There has been no acute famine in independent India. But India has failed to remove chronic hunger. It is a very diffult to remove chronic hunger as it needs a long drawn out careful effort. The situation is opposite in China. There have been instances of famine in China but it has been able to remove chronic hunger successfully. Economists like Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze (in their book Hunger andPublic Action, 1991, Oxford University Press) emphasise the need for early warning systems and employment provision plans are needed for famine prevention. They suggest endemic deprivation can be eliminated by looking at basic health care and elementary education in addition to food provision.

Weakness in government policy to enhance exchange entitlements

There have been a lot of centrally-sponsored schemes in India to provide food or income to labourers like Food for Work or Pradhan Mantri RojgarYojna. But the most important of all has been the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), commonly known as the 100-day work scheme. The MGNREGA is considered the biggest effective employment generating scheme in the world. Several studies show that hunger would have been greater in  India had there not been schemes like the MGNREGA. The ruling BJP had been critical of the MGNREGA. But the situation hasbeen so the ruling government has allocated increased amounts for it. But the problem is tge MGNREGA has been made unremunerative to the labourers. It is mainly because the scheme has not been linked to the minimum wage law of the states in India. This hasled to significant reduction in the demand for MGNREGA jobs. This is actually a demand driven jobs scheme. Ankita Aggarwal, an independent researcher, has mentioned (EPW, November, 4, 2017) how the scheme from its inception in 2006 has been a source of social and economic benefit. “The incomes earned from MGNREGA wages and assets created under the programme have enabled the rural household to ward off hunger and fight poverty,” wrote Aggarwal. She is anxious for the future social, political, and economic beneficial impacts of the programme. She says in her article, “All this is at stake if MGNREGA wages become unremunerative over time that workers themselves decide to reject this programme for its failure to provide them with economic support.”

Similarly, Jean Dreze, visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University, has criticised the weakness in implementing the public action programme. Recently, he wrote in a national newspaper that there hasbeen a growing evidence that compulsory biometric authentication is excluding the marginalised from security nets while engendering new forms of public distribution corruption.


To remove hunger, conscious targeted government policy is called for. The quantum of food grains alone is not a sufficient condition for hunger eradication. In India, a lot of programmes havebeen implemented. Out of them, the MGNREGA has been most focussed upon. But wrong policy of the government is responsible for making the programme unremunerative. In such a situation, it is very clear why India has been losing its position in the hunger index. Greater anxiety remains for the future unless policy reversal comes from government.

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