Paradox of Poverty amid Plenty
Most people would have been shocked to read the year-end report that India has been ranked 63rd, much below countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), a yardstick used by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to comprehensively measure global hunger.
The index is calculated as an average of three indices—undernourishment, underweight children and low child mortality rate—and is measured on a 0-100 scale. The closer a country is to zero, the lower is the proportion of undernourished population, underweight children and child mortality rate. Simply put, higher the index, higher the hunger-affected population.
Set up in 1975, IFPRI intends “to end hunger globally” and to direct the political will in fighting hunger. Though the GHI does not measure micronutrient deficiencies, maternal malnutrition or food security, it should still set alarm bells ringing. It is a terribly sorry state of affairs that even 67 years after Independence, India is termed the world’s hunger capital.
That there has been no or negligible improvement in the GHI for the past 12 years should come as an eye-opener to those who have been playing hunger politics and float one scheme or another to appease the deprived to enlarge vote banks. Ironically, the report has come at a time when the government is desperate to export its “surplus” foodgrains.
According to the Food Corporation of India, the country has 70 million tonnes of foodgrains, against the 50.9 million tonnes required to meet the needs of its public distribution system (PDS). The stocks will heap up after another bumper harvest, expected to add another 100 million tonnes to the surplus. The billion-dollar question is why are we not able to meet the basic need of a human being—food?
Whenever such questions are raised and issues like social security and hunger concerning the marginalised are brought up, people in charge shed responsibility by talking of declining Sensex, exchange rate, growth rate, increasing fiscal deficit and global recession. One may recall prime minister Manmohan Singh’s cynical statement that “money does not grow on trees”. If anything, it reflected the supreme insensitivity of the government, despite its claims to the contrary.
The 1996 World Food Summit in Rome related food security to the provision of “sufficient, safe and nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. As a corollary, the absence of it prevents millions of Indians from playing an active role in the economic growth of the country because of their ill-health and diseases. Despite a growth of around 8 per cent in the GDP even during the recent global slowdown, India is said to have more than 42 per cent of its population below the poverty line and, if statistics are to be believed, more than 20 per cent of the world’s undernourished population lives in India.
In other words, over 42 per cent of the Indian population lives on less than $1.25 per day, the World Bank’s benchmark. Ironically, Indian yardsticks of poverty are changed and altered as per the convenience of those in power and institutions like the Planning Commission. They spend more time to manipulate figures of the poor than to actually address their problem.
There is little doubt that India shall miss the UN millennium development goals of halving hunger by 2015. India has received applause from people like Thomas Friedman, who celebrate its success in globalisation, though it has a terrible record in tracking hunger and malnutrition. In 1978, India became a net grain exporter but 230 million Indians remain undernourished, despite midday meal and intensive child development schemes and subsidies. No doubt India has eliminated famine but little has been done to eliminate poverty, the root cause of malnutrition.
Conventional economic growth plans demanding more investment in government-assisted programmes have little to do with eradication of poverty as most of the growth remains in urban areas without having much effect on villages where most poor people live.
The best way to end food insecurity is to help the rural poor increase their income from farming. Most of the rural people engaged in agriculture grow enough rice, wheat or corn to feed their families throughout the year. However, a large proportion does not have enough land or the right kind of land to eliminate hunger. They, therefore, survive on one meal a day or even less for three to four months between crops.
Even if they have enough resources to produce a good crop, they end up losing the most while selling their produce to those who run the markets. Every year the government announces minimum support prices (MSP) for crops like wheat and rice but small and marginal farmers are forced to sell their crops at a lower price to the traders, who ruthlessly manipulate the market. If the farmers are educated enough to grow drip-irrigated off-season vegetables, off-season fruits and spices, they are likely to earn more.
In this era of smartphones and hi-tech computers, the agricultural sector must also gear up with smart management of agricultural resources and technology. This envisages use and management of available resources, latest cultivation practices and mechanisation along with improvement in nutritional content of major cereals, pulses and millets. The balanced nutritional security has to be given greater priority than food security per se, as malnourishment has taken an upper hand over hunger.
The Planning Commission recently came up with a report that if a fraction of the amount spent on announcing welfare schemes was actually distributed among the poor, it would have had an alarming effect on their living standard. The UPA government is said to have spent around `1 lakh crore every year since 2004 on several poverty-eradication schemes. The commission has estimated a cost of around `55,744 crore for moving all households out of poverty. Surprise of surprise, the UPA government has spent `72,822 crore on food subsidy and `1,09,379 crore on poverty eradication schemes during the same period.
The PDS and midday meal scheme have always been criticised for their ineffectiveness. Ditto for the much-touted rural employment guarantee scheme. All this makes one wonder if the UPA government has the country’s interest in mind.
In a scenario where other nations talk of providing nutritional security, India is still grappling with the issue of filling the bellies of the poor. It is a saddening state of affairs that while food worth `44,000 crore is wasted, there are others who don’t get enough to appease their hunger.
The author is a company secretary and can be reached at email@example.com