What does it say about politicians and political parties of a democracy when an ‘authoritarian regime’ does better on tackling hunger! Between 2007 and 2017, China brought down prevalence of hunger to improve its ranking from 47 to 29 among 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index. In the very period, India’s ranking slid from 94 to 100. On the face of it rankings are about how well or how poorly an entity does as compared to others.
In 2007, India at 94/119 was trailing 93 countries. In 2017, India is trailing 99 countries. What illustrates this better is the performance of others. In the immediate neighbourhood, Nepal is ranked at 72, Myanmar at 77 and Sri Lanka at 84. Bangladesh, which trailed nine places behind India at 103 in 2007, is ranked at 88 in 2017.
It is not just the neighbours, smaller poorer countries such as Malawi and Mali have moved ahead, and Rwanda has caught up with India. Indeed, strife-torn Iraq is ranked at 78 and totalitarian North Korea at 93 out of 119 countries. And how does India compare to its peers from the BRICS grouping? BRICS aficionados may note that Brazil is ranked at 18, Russia at 22 and South Africa at 55 among the 119 countries.
Comparative ranking does not quite capture the state of grief and misery. To get a perspective of the reality on the ground, translate the weights and scores of the Index created by the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI) to assess the gravity of the situation, of distress and death, the magnitude of the silent crisis.
The IFPRI data spells out that 14.5 per cent of the population—that would be nearly 190 million persons or roughly the population of the UK, Italy and France put together—are undernourished, that is, they do not receive the required calories per day. The most vulnerable are the most affected—21 per cent of the children under five are wasting and 38.4 or a third of children under five is stunted. Causes lead to consequences—India’s under-five mortality rate is 4.8 per cent. Translated: every year over 10 lakh children—that would be over 100 an hour—die before reaching the age of five.
And which region or rather which states are the most affected by the problem of hunger? Like many other issues in India, the answer lies between the known and the unknown. Past studies on poverty and malnutrition reveal that the most affected are the most populated, under-developed and poorly governed states, otherwise known as Bimaru states.
A 2008 study supported by IFPRI looked at Inter State Hunger Index for India’s states. Typically, Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh were at the bottom of the rankings. The study classified hunger in 12 states as ‘alarming’ and added that these states ranked ‘below several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, even though per capita income in these Sub-Saharan African countries is much lower than in India.’ It could be argued that in the decade since 2008, matters may have improved but that flies in the face of the fact that the overall ranking of India has slid.
It is not that there have not been policy initiatives. There is a menu of authentic acronym soups—PDS (Public Distribution System), TPDS (Targeted Public Distribution System), ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services), and MDMS (Mid-day Meals Scheme)—crafted by successive regimes to deliver food security.
The PDS, which is the mainframe of welfare delivery, was launched in 1939. It was later redesigned as Targeted PDS and followed up with the Antyodaya Schome during the Vajpayee regime. The ICDS is more than four-decades old. The MDMS is essentially M G Ramachandran’s mid-day meal scheme launched in 1982. Following the `2/kg rice scheme pioneered by N T Rama Rao, several states followed suit. In recent years, states have launched meal canteens inspired by Jayalalithaa’s Amma Canteen.
Each programme came with the promise of addressing the issue of hunger— among adults, among children and mothers. In fact, food security is a justiciable right for Indians since 2013 following the legislation of the National Food Security Act, which promises five kilograms of food grains per person to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population across the country. That there are millions suffering despite a justiciable provision in law is a testimony to the level of apathy.
For years, governments have wallowed about resources. Money does play a role in funding interventions to mitigate hunger, but it is not just about money. Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh—together have a GDP of less than $225 billion—are considerably constrained than India with its $2 trillion economy. Indeed, between 2007 and 2017, India’s food subsidy bill has shot up from `24,014 crore to `1,45,338 crore for 2017-18—that is a jump of over five times in the space of 10 years.
The ready-to-use alibi about India’s many failures—reflected in its human development indicators—is its population, its geographical scale, its complexity and its diversity. China has a larger population than India and is three times in area. The question is about commitment to outcomes, about redesigning of programmes and about cutting down leakage, theft and waste.
There is the cost of wanton waste. In a country where millions are struggling for the per day calorie count, over `92,000 crore worth food produce is wasted. Earlier this year, the government informed the Parliament that over 11,889 tonne of food grains rotted under the watch of the Food Corporation of India between 2015-16 and 2016-17—that is ration for over 2 million as per the National Food Security Act.
And then there is the price of do-little policies. Ronald Reagan once said, “status quo is Latin for the mess we are in”. A parade of committees has suggested an overhaul of the food security regime. The Shanta Kumar Committee detailed the level of leakage and the unsustainable architecture of food subsidy apparatus. Almost every committee has highlighted the issue of procurement, storage and carrying cost of distribution and called for a more decentralised operation. Change is trapped between persuasive politics of status quo and systemic sloth.Finally, the best antidote for poverty and hunger is creation of income opportunities. For a reality check look at the rise in China’s GDP between 2007 and 2017. It trebled!