The hungry billions

In the 1996 World Food Summit, international leadership had vowed to bring down the list of hungry people around the globe to half within 20 years. Almost fifteen years hence, the hunger list has only proliferated around the globe, increasing to 925 million with an estimated 128 million having died during this period, according to fresh estimates in the run up to the UN Millenium Development Goals. Ironically still, a democratic country like India with a cosmetic burgeoning economy is among the ones that has monumentally failed in feeding its teeming population of starving millions. Latest reports reveal that India has dropped two ranks to 67th place among 84 developing countries. The statistics are worrying to say the least. That they place India below the much poorer countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even Bangladesh, and reveal that India has more hungry people than Sudan, make India’s tiring bid to increase its international status with a more impressive economic growth figure without dealing with its basic issues like hunger and poverty, a poor joke. Figures indicate that while the proportion of under nourished people in India is decreasing, the country’s efforts are far more dismal than other developing countries in fighting hunger. This is a telling comment on the wrong priorities that a new liberalized India has committed itself to while dragging feet over whether the country needs a Food Security Act or not. That a changing economic policy has done precious little for the teeming poor is reflected from the comparative figures of 60 percent mal-nourished children under the age of five in the pre-liberalisation era as compared to 43 percent as of today.

The figures ring alarm bells and reveal that there is something grossly wrong with the economic policies and the priorities in planning in this country. The reasons are multiple, like pilferage, lack of accountability, prioritising service and other sectors over the more significant agriculture sector and shifting focus on extravaganza rather than the basic needs. The incidence of hunger is high despite the country having more food grains to feed its population, indicating the absence of an adequate system of mechanism of distributing the same. The much hyped Below Poverty Line scheme has already come under much criticism not only for the colossal corruption involved but also for the fact that the BPL ration schemes miserably fails in providing a nutritious diet to the deprived and a vast chunk of population with low income levels. The horrifying stories of rotting food grains in a country that cannot even afford or plan enough stocking facilities are still very recent. And still, when the leadership of the country debates about the Food Security Bill, the focus is more on just availability, even though food security just go beyond the simple issue of availability of food, and also ensure its accessibility. India’s economy is expanding at a fast rate but the contributors to growth are rather focused on IT, telecom and other service sectors, with little or no reforms for the agricultural sector even though much of the population in this country still continues to be agrarian based. In striking contrast, China, which is four times bigger than India, having made remarkable progress in combating huger, has ranked ninth in this latest list survey. China too is expanding its economy very briskly with greater focus on agriculture sector, followed by manufacturing and service sectors. The Chinese experiment reveals how India has tried to put the cart before the horse. It’s labyrinth of stories of farmers committing suicides and large-scale conversion of agricultural spaces into commercial spaces only because agriculture brings in poorer returns is interwoven in this mesh of flawed economic policies where electronic good are more accessible than food, even for the poor. Though the agricultural growth in the last one year has been abysmally low due to severe drought, the fact remains that natural causes alone are not the compelling reasons for low agricultural yield, which has resulted from poor agricultural reforms and the much needed packages. Instead India seems to be closing its doors on agriculture by squeezing its space to accommodate the big multi-national giants through a grossly unfair and flawed race of creating Special Economic Zones.

Much of this problem also stems from an inverted mindset that compels the leadership of the country to think of more prestige symbols rather than the very basics. It may be optimistic of India to look forward to getting a better bargaining position in the international politics with an impressive over all economic growth figures, opening out to the multi-national companies more compatible and suitable to the western super powers and its renewed focus on white elephants that yield little rather than focusing on the basic and more important issues of hunger, health, hygiene and nutrition. The defence spending of the country is far more than the spending on food security. A country which has a teeming population of hungry and inflating percentage of mal-nourished and starving is too busy focusing on prestige symbols like Commonwealth Games. The policy failure in managing and ensuring food security is too glaring. But the government is yet to address it as a holistic programme.