World Food Day: 35 years on, India still struggles against hunger

In spite of a grain surplus, 15 per cent of Indians remain underfed, and nearly 40 per cent of children under five are stunted by malnutrition. Photograph:( Others )

WION Boston, MA, United States Oct 13, 2016, 09.52 AM (IST) Benjamin Siegel

The stately Château Frontenac looms imposingly over Quebec City, its copper roofs and weathered brick a world apart from the tan of Lutyens’ Delhi. Little at first glance links the grand hotel to the fields and people of a hungry subcontinent. Yet it was this building where, seventy years ago today, a small Indian delegation arrived to ask for help for a fledgling nation.

In October 1946, India was barely past the horrors of the Bengal Famine, and the nationalists who had brought the freedom struggle to its dramatic end were worried that their promises of abundance would soon founder against the realities of empty godowns, barren fields, and depleted supplies of foreign reserves. Earlier in the year, Indian statesmen had toured the United States to plead for food for the new nation. And in autumn, the veteran statesman G.S. Bajpai was sent to Quebec to represent India at the First Session of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Bajpai spoke to the staggering “problems of hunger and of poverty” that India was prepared to tackle on its own accord, asking for the Organisation’s help in procuring small-scale mechanical appliances, “trained technical men,” and markets that would ensure fair prices.

For 35 years, October 16 has been celebrated as World Food Day, an occasion to renew a global commitment to a world without hunger. Yet seventy years after that meeting in Quebec, there is precious little to celebrate in India’s continuing struggle against hunger and malnutrition. It remains incumbent upon researchers, politicians, and citizens to consider the dismaying state of India’s food position today, reaffirming a commitment that has grown no less vital with time.

there is precious little to celebrate in India’s continuing struggle against hunger and malnutrition
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Seven decades ago, G.S. Bajpai struggled to quantify India’s hunger, suggesting that nearly a third of the incipient nation’s 400 million people were hungry. But the efforts of Indian and international groups to quantity the nation’s hunger have painted a clearer and no less appalling picture. The most recent Global Hunger Index report, issued by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), paints a damning picture of India’s enduring hunger. In spite of a quantitative grain surplus, fifteen per cent of India’s citizens remain underfed, and nearly forty percent of children under five are stunted by malnutrition. 

India is the second worst-fed country in the region after Pakistan, and its index ranking of 28.5 puts it just ahead of clunkers like Zimbabwe and North Korea. Nor is the report optimistic: by 2030, India is predicted to be scarcely better-off than today. Several years ago, before it was unceremoniously shuttered, India’s own National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau reported that rural Indians were eating decidedly worse than they had forty years prior, to the tune of 550 fewer calories and 13 fewer grams of protein a day. 

In the earliest years of India’s independence, legislators tussled over the ways in which food might be guaranteed through law. “Is there a single word in the Constitution,” one delegate to the Constituent Assembly asked, “that imposes on the future Governments the obligation to see that nobody in India dies of starvation?” Yet comprehensive legislation remained elusive, even as India weathered recurrent subsistence crises, celebrated Green Revolution advances, and worked to make sense of a political landscape remade by agrarian capitalists.

“Is there a single word in the Constitution,” one delegate to the Constituent Assembly asked, “that imposes on the future Governments the obligation to see that nobody in India dies of starvation?”
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The most spirited attempt to enshrine a right to food into law came in late 2013, when the Congress government managed to push an ambitious National Food Security Act through Parliament. Against protests of fiscal excess, the Act’s proponents extolled its provisions as the legislative safeguards that would finally quash India’s nutritional inequality. Bringing together a coterie of schemes under a single roof, the Act declared two-thirds of India’s population eligible for five kilograms of cereals a month at heavily subsidised rates. In certain poorer states, nearly 80 per cent of citizens became eligible for these cheap cereals — a victory for the liberal economists and left-leaning politicians who had long agitated for more expansive entitlements.

By the time the Act’s provisions were to have come into force, the new BJP-led government had taken the reins in New Delhi. In states where the Act was implemented quickly, like Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh, the benefits were clear: coverage of beneficiaries increased, and the theft, loss, and waste that claimed nearly 90% of rations a decade earlier had been reduced to around 10 per cent. Yet other states stalled, eager like the national government to reduce spending on subsidies. 

In February 2016, the Supreme Court reproached nine states and two union territories which had failed to implement the Act. Activists and scholars studying those states surveyed a depressing status quo: missing ration cards and incomplete rosters, claims of inadequate supplies and overpricing, and grains unfit for human consumption. The Centre, meanwhile, shows no terrible enthusiasm for the Act, preferring to focus on the showier, “value-added” sectors of food and agriculture, like greenhouse and organic farming techniques, the construction of new food processing units, and the opening-up of food marketing and retailing to foreign direct investment.

In the absence of better implementation of existing legislation, it’s unsurprising that the management of hunger is increasingly seen as the purview of private initiative, corporate social responsibility, and the designs of regional politicking. The United Nations recently named a former management consultant one of its U.N. Young Leaders for Sustainable Development Goals for his initiative to redistribute excess food from weddings and parties to hungry citizens. 

the management of hunger is increasingly seen as the purview of private initiative, corporate social responsibility, and the designs of regional politicking
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Public health researchers have looked with worry to India’s “double burden” of cheek-by-jowl obesity and malnutrition, with a fifth of India’s population now overweight. These experts no doubt rolled their eyes over KFC’s recent pledge of a Rs. 5 donation to a private food bank for each bucket of deep-fried poultry sold. And in Tamil Nadu — the State that pioneered midday meal distribution in the 1960s — “Amma Canteens” dole out subsidized fare to workers to drum up support for the AIADMK party and the state’s mononymous Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.

The desire of entrepreneurs, corporations, and politicians to make their mark on the nation’s most visible developmental failure is neither new nor inherently undesirable. Relief organisations have doled out meals since the Bengal Famine and civic-minded industrialists have proffered up schemes for plenty since the “Bombay Plan” of 1944. If any of these new relief projects can staunch some of India’s abiding hunger, so much the better. Yet no app nor corporate food bank or canteen can compensate for a public distribution system unassisted by meaningful reform. And the failure of ventures like Bharti-Walmart to lessen India’s prodigious food wastage suggests that private enterprise alone cannot better India’s damning nutritional indicators.

What, then, might work to finally actualise India’s seven-decade promise of plenty? The solutions are neither glamorous, nor novel, but are far more feasible than incriminating statistics might suggest.

Votaries of free markets and state-driven development alike must abandon dogma. They need to come together around a public distribution system that is robust and assured, but which allows for creative experimentation in more food secure regions. In the face of data demonstrating the real effects of guaranteed entitlements, India’s politicians must double down on these commitments, eschewing the temptation to abandon them on account of expense, move too quickly into flashier projects, or cede control to opportunistic free marketeers.

They need to come together around a public distribution system that is robust and assured, but which allows for creative experimentation in more food secure regions.
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Simultaneously, these commitments must not preclude important experimentation aimed at helping consumers and producers. New Delhi is perhaps too ready to embrace cash transfers in place of cereal rations, but if substantial, regular payments are proven not only to cost less but to provide equivalent nutrition as well, there is no reason to stay with an older model. 

Perhaps just as importantly, India’s politicians and citizens must take to heart the notion that hunger is not merely the fodder for politicking, nor simply the object of feel-good campaigns undertaken in the name of corporate social responsibility. India’s failure to actualise the promise of plenty is a developmental defeat, and a betrayal of the vision of its freedom fighters, but also a tangible obstacle to the promise of equitable growth and global pre-eminence. The MNCs will not be eager to “Make in India” if its Global Hunger Index lumbers somewhere below Malawi’s. The nation’s struggling efforts to produce more and distribute more equitably are a substantive impediment to an India that is productive, healthy, and capable of actualising its full developmental potential. 

The nation’s struggling efforts to produce more and distribute more equitably are a substantive impediment to an India that is productive, healthy, and capable of actualising its full developmental potential. 
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If World Hunger Day is an opportunity to reflect on these challenges, so too might it be possible to take comfort in the notion that the answers are waiting in plain sight. G.S. Bajpai’s 1946 request for tools, information, and fair markets for producers and consumers contains within it the seeds of today’s solutions. It remains incumbent upon us, in 2016, to dedicate ourselves to nurturing them.

Benjamin Siegel

Benjamin Siegel is Assistant Professor of History at Boston University, and the author of the forthcoming 'Hungry Nation: Food, Famine, and the Making of Modern India'.