August , 2019
Saving the last person in rural India from hunger
14:14 pm

Dr PK Agrawal and Hrusikesh Das

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2018 ranks India at the 103rd position out of 119 countries despite having plenty of food grains. The situation remains grim due to dwindling purchasing power and a lack of distributive justice. Any death due to hunger and famine should be identified as a shame for the policy planners, administrators, and political executives at the helm of affairs.

According to a report titled ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2018’ by the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO), India remains home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world - 202 million (14.9% of its population) as of 2018. Around 195.9 million people go hungry every day. The same report also states that 21% of children under 5 years are underweight and 38.4% of children under 5 years are stunted. One in four children is malnourished.

Moreover, hunger and malnutrition have a distinct gender dimension and are widespread among women and mothers. Every second woman in India is reported to be anaemic. Actually, anaemia affects 75% children below 5 years, 51% of women between 15 and 59 years and 87% of pregnant women. More than 70% of women and kids have serious nutritional deficiencies. Similarly, Scheduled Tribes (STs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and minorities ((Muslims) are greatly disadvantaged in this regard. 

Moreover, 12 of the 17 major states fall into the ‘alarming’ category and one into the ‘extremely alarming’ category. It is alarming that these 17 states are home for 95% of the Indian population. Persisting food inflation further aggravates the problem, especially for the poor. Poverty, gender inequality and low level of awareness can be identified as the primary causes of hunger and malnutrition in India.

The Indian government has been responding with a number of measures to overcome hunger and malnutrition. The National Food Security Act, 2013 (also Right to Food Act) aims to provide subsidised food grains to approximately two-thirds of India's 1.2 billion people. The National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA 2013) converts food security into a legal entitlement. It includes the Midday Meal Scheme, Integrated Child Development Services scheme and the Public Distribution System. Further, the NFSA 2013 recognises maternity entitlements. The Midday Meal Scheme and the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme are universal in nature whereas the Public Distribution System (PDS) is to reach about two-thirds of the population (75% in rural areas and 50% in urban areas). Pregnant women, lactating mothers, and certain categories of children are eligible for daily free cereals. Most of the state governments have already implemented this Act.

The Odisha government implemented the Food Security Act in 14 districts from November 17, 2015. The Odisha state government has been implementing another scheme to counter poverty and hunger with effect from January 1, 2019 through the KALIA scheme. This scheme has been launched to accelerate agricultural prosperity and is also aimed at elimination of poverty. The scheme will also provide financial and livelihood cultivation support along with insurance support to small, marginal and the landless farmers. However, implementation of these measures has not been complete.

The situation in India warrants the formulation of a Below BPL (BBPL) category in order to save the poorest in rural India from hunger and death. Redistribution of excess government land can also benefit the situation. Additionally, every gram panchayat should have a dedicated fund of `5000 that can be given out to BBPL families as emergency relief in case of starvation issues. The MGNREGA scheme should be extended to 150 days and entail only manual work. If these steps are taken by the central government in collaboration with the state governments, it will mark the initiation of India’s fight against hunger and famine. 

P.K.Agrawal retired as Commissioner General, Department of Land Reforms, West Bengal. He has about a dozen books on land reforms, development and bureaucracy. For this article, he was assisted by H.Das who is associated with IIM, Sirmaur, Odisha.

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