One would hardly expect the prime minister of a country that fashions itself as the biggest democracy of the world and hopes to be a ‘superpower’ by 2020 to acknowledge that his country is home to hunger. Yet that is precisely what the Indian prime minister did recently. Harder to believe is that the prime minister did not stop at that but went on to call it a national shame.
He was not off the mark. With more than 42 per cent of Indian children being underweight, a national shame it is. One would be tempted, though, to ask what his government and those of his predecessors have been doing to fight and eradicate this national shame.
The devil lies in the details hidden in the answer to this question. The details expose the paradox of high rates of chronic hunger in a country where millions of tons of foodgrain rot in the godowns of Food Corporation of India (FCI) every single year. For example, while replying to a question in parliament, Sharad Pawar, the incumbent minister for Food and Agriculture, informed the lower house that over 11,700 tons of food grains worth 68.6 million Indian rupees (or approximately USD1.5 million) were found damaged in government warehouses. This wastage of food could be seen as--and dealt with as--a criminal offence in any country, leave alone India with so many hungry stomachs to feed!
Added to this is the fact that at any given point in time the FCI stocks almost double the amount of buffer norms, an amount that hovers around 30 million tons of foodgrain. Evidently, the government is not hard-pressed with any shortage of food. Quite on the contrary, it has more than enough to release not merely to save children from malnutrition but also to save the foodgrain from rotting.
This is not to suggest that the prime minister or his government has woken up to the disturbing fact of malnutrition with a start. The writing has been on the wall all this while. There was enough data to shake it out of its slumber, more so because the data was coming from a multitude of sources including its own agencies, independent economists, research institutions and international watchdogs among others.
For example, India has been ranked in the ‘alarming’ category on the Hunger Index prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Notably, every single country in Asia barring Bangladesh has been performing better, and that includes war torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq! In fact even Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Rwanda and Zimbabwe were found to be feeding their people better than India. The findings merely corroborated the research of Utsa Patnaik, one of the most renowned contemporary Indian economists, who has decisively shown that an average Indian family in 2005 was consuming a staggering 110kg less grain as compared to that in 1991.
Patnaik has not stopped at that. Her meticulous studies have pointed out that when it comes to food security, India is failing its citizenry on every single count. Never mind the alarming gap between required protein intake and actual consumption, a silent majority was not getting enough for mere physical survival in terms of calorie intake. Backed with solid data, she has gone on to demonstrate that per capita food consumption in contemporary India is worse than that in the colonial times!
The situation on the ground is horrifying to say the least. If one goes by the criteria for famine put forward by the World Health Organisation (WHO), then the world’s largest democracy can be labelled as famine stricken. One of the WHO criteria to determine famine defines a community with more than 40 per cent of its population having a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 as famine stricken. By that yardstick, Indian children as a whole and many other communities, mostly the Dalit and tribal, are in the grip of a near-perennial condition of famine!
About the same time that Paitnak was using the data from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO)—an agency reporting directly to the Government of India—to reach her conclusions, P. Sainath, one of the best journalists in India, was demonstrating how frightening the situation in the Indian countryside has become.
The deepening agricultural crisis in rural India has culminated into two separate but entwined scenarios that would be enough to shame any country, let alone, again, the world’s largest democracy. India on one hand has been witnessing the largest documented wave of suicides by small and marginal farmers unable to repay debts, and on the other, a huge exodus from the countryside, in the absence of emergency or exigency.
The crisis has not escalated to this point overnight. It has been long coming. Governments too have been well aware of it. However, they have responded in a fashion that can at best be termed ‘knee-jerk’. Most of them have done nothing and others, precious little. The set pattern of response has included launching welfare schemes ostensibly aimed at bringing people out of the self-reinforcing vicious circle of poverty and hunger, on the premise that such schemes will break the tie between poverty resulting in stunted growth and that stunting in turn resulting in more poverty.
Some of these schemes are almost as old as the republic itself. In order to help the poor and needy through the Public Distribution System (PDS), governments opened fair price shops selling subsidised rations, kerosene oil (and even clothes, in the distant past) in as many villages as it could. Most of these shops remain closed to the needy. Their rations and kerosene get siphoned off to the open market and contractors make a lot of money. Of course there are officials entrusted with the job of fighting such blatant corruption, but then, most of them act in collusion with the contractors and take their own cuts. Such a system is beneficial for everyone. It is just that “everyone” here does not include the poor and dispossessed.
Before rubbishing this argument as consisting of baseless allegations, bear in mind that these are the findings of the Justice Wadhwa committee which was appointed by the Supreme Court of India to study PDS reform.
The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), formulated in 1975 with a mandate of fighting malnutrition among children under six years of age, tells a similar story. Malnutrition among children, as acknowledged by the prime minister himself, runs at 42 per cent. Need one say more about the efficiency and success of the scheme? Not really, barring one fact that begs our attention. A closer look at the budgetary allocation for the scheme brings out that every child is entitled to a grim 4 rupees of budgetary allocation per day, or less than a twelfth of a single US dollar. At the current market rates, the amount would seem to be a cruel joke for any sane person, even forgetting the distressing fact that a significant chunk of even this meagre sum is eaten up by widely prevalent corruption.
The menace of corruption is of course nothing new. Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister of India poignantly noted way back in late 1980s that 86 paisa out of every rupee earmarked for such schemes was lost to corruption. The figures must be far worse now. But if we account for the four rupees per child using his estimate, we find that the actual money reaching a child through the ICDS entitlement is a mere 56 paisa. One might think of this callousness as a one-off accounting mistake were it not for the fact that the same government is trying to lower the poverty line to an abysmal 32 rupees (USD 0.60) for urban dwellers and 20 rupees (USD 0.40) for rural dwellers per capita per day.
Similarly, policies aimed at inclusion are subverted to exclude the needy and the bureaucracy seems to master the art of administering misery instead of delivering benefits. The exclusionary character of the policy has been lamented time and again, even by those in the system. The Justice Wadhwa Committee identified it as the core problem plaguing the system and asserted that the very basis of adjudging the poverty level at an expenditure of less than 15 rupees a day was ‘too low’. It also submitted to the Supreme Court that nearly half of the poor do not have Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and are thus disentitled.
Even this disentitlement is not one off. One would find it hard to believe, but the Planning Commission of India had the audacity to put a central cap on the number of BPL families in the provinces and then defend it while acknowledging that it does disentitle those genuinely needy. For the uninitiated, the ‘central cap’ is an arbitrary figure that state governments follow for the purpose of identifying families below poverty lines. Further, it leaves the states to deal by themselves with any population in excess of the cap. It does not give any assistance for that population. Having a significant population in perpetual poverty is no big deal to the central government. It can just be wished away by the magic wand of statistics, it seems.
In a written submission to the Supreme Court the Planning Commission argues that it “is aware that many States complain that people who are indisputably poor are left out of the BPL list because of the cap imposed by the Central Government. It is not denied that this is indeed the case in many states.” What then does it do? It blames it all on state governments, arguing that the problem has been caused by its identification by the states! Any rational person would find the argument not merely baffling but also absurd, as did the Supreme Court. In an order dated 29 March 2011, the court expressed its dismay over the issue and asserted that it failed “to comprehend the rationale and justification of putting a cap by the Planning Commission”.
The fact of the matter is that the state governments, taken together, have identified 111 million Indian families to be BPL, as against the central government’s estimation that puts the BPL count at half of that, or just around 60 million. Interestingly, even the central government seems to know that its own estimate is not merely unreliable but also seriously low. What else would explain the National Food Security Bill proposed by the same government, putting the BPL cap at 46 per cent in rural areas and 28 per cent in urban ones?
Evidently, everyone—including the government, the judiciary and the civil society—is well aware of the problem. The Supreme Court has also been trying its level best to address it, even if it means taking on the role of the executive, because the executive has refused to discharge its duties as mandated by the constitution. Yet, it does not mean much for those fighting hunger on the ground. The Supreme Court is neither that easily accessible to them, nor can it afford to adjudicate on individual cases in a country with a population of more than a billion.
The system, of course, has a grievance redress mechanism at the lower levels, offering remedies to anyone whose rights or freedoms get violated. Unfortunately, this system is no less inefficient and corrupt than its counterparts in the administrative and legislative branches. In fact, even the Supreme Court of India has taken notice of the corruption and inefficiency rampant in the judicial ranks. The situation is far worse at the lower rungs of the judiciary, which often is the first point of contact for a person seeking remedy and the rest of the system.
This is where we can start digging deeper into the real factors that lead to such terrible state of chronic hunger affecting the citizenry of a country claiming to be moving up the ladder. To begin with, chronic hunger does not affect the citizenry as a whole but affects only those who have been condemned to live on the margins of Indian society. Even a cursory glance at any data on hunger brings this fact out. The Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report, whose findings the prime minister based his national shame comment on, underscores that the children from Muslim and Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe households are among the largest numbers of victims, and they suffer more than others.
The finding partly explains the administrative inertia; despite all the urgency that the government shows when talking about the problem. To put things in perspective, this is not the first time that the prime minister has shown such concern over malnutrition affecting Indian children. Taking cognisance of the enormity of the issue and its implications for the nation, the government had set up the Prime Minister's National Council on Nutrition way back in 2008, but then the council did not even meet but once in 2010! Not a single decision taken in that meeting, like the restructuring and strengthening of the ICDS, was ever implemented, despite recommendations from various governmental committees as well as civil society groups.
The government can well afford to ignore hunger. For it does not exist in isolation but is deeply embedded in the social system that Dr BR Ambedkar famously referred to as a system of ‘graded inequalities’. Hunger affects those who occupy the lowest rungs on the ladder, people who are seldom represented in the mainstream discourse. They are the people the government can choose to forget, for their sheer numbers ensure that it would never be in short of labour even if it let a large section of them silently die.
Barring a small but highly committed section of the civil society, these people get a short shrift from larger society, even when it cannot actually do without them. They build the factories and houses, guard gated communities, and run errands as house-helpers while getting systemically dispossessed from their lands and livelihood, as happened in the Narmada Dam project and is happening all over India in the Special Economic Zones.
This is where Indian democracy reduces itself into a terribly deficient and in fact delinquent form of government. In a social system that penalises people for accidents of birth in a particular group instead of giving equal opportunities to all individuals irrespective of their caste, creed or community, primary responsibility for helping those on the margins lies with the state. This is why the state is treated as parens patriae (parent of the citizens) and has the right to intervene in cases of interest to the citizens such as in matters of health, physical comfort and welfare, whenever such interests are threatened. But the Indian state would have none of this. Instead it seems prepared to let its citizenry live with the paradox of a democracy in the political arena rendered futile by extreme levels of socioeconomic inequality, as forewarned by Dr Ambedkar.
The only way to deal with the issue perhaps is to ensure that one fights hunger, social exclusion, dispossession and other such ills through a system of justice. A system of justice, in turn, can only be based on rule of law, ensuring effective, efficient and immediate remedies to people whose rights or freedoms have been violated through the malfunctioning of the system.
What the government and the prime minister need to do is radically restructure the whole system with an emphasis on building an honest delivery mechanism with corresponding mechanisms for addressing grievances. The government would do well to start at the grassroots, say by making the system transparent and giving communities a stake in running the mechanism. For example, the experiences of social audits in the case of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act (MNREGA) have been tremendously encouraging. Not only have the social audits seen massive participation by the community members but they have also helped fighting corruption. Almost all studies on the MNREGA have found that it has been most successful where the process of social audits backed by community-based organisation has become institutionalised.
Devising a mechanism like social audits can actually be a real good beginning that would go a long way in ensuring food security and alleviating hunger. Need one say that in the face of such community action deriving from a right, diverting the foodgrain meant for the community would become far more difficult than it is now? Making the lower judiciary more accessible and affordable may be the next step in the direction for ensuring that those subverting the system are dealt with. Till the government gets its act together on these two counts, all talk will remain empty, words devoid of any meaning.