Hunger Gets The Better Of Big Fat Indian Weddings

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India, home to the second largest population in the world, also stands second in food production globally. It has been a long journey for the nation to turn into a food-surplus country from that of a food-deficit one in 1960. But in spite of its current elevated status, India is still the HUNGER capital of the world. Nearly one-fourth of its 1.2 billion population sleep hungry owing to the enormous wastage of food in the country.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Processing Industries has been looking at participatory ways to control food wastage, involving several awareness campaigns and citizen partnerships. But in spite of those efforts, food worth over Rs 50,000 crore (both perishable and non-perishable) lands up in garbage dumps instead of feeding the hungry mouths. This, in turn, greatly affects people living below the poverty line and pushes them closer to death due to starvation.

India's Green Revolution has paid rich dividends in the form of increased food production. The series of research, development and technology transfer initiatives that occurred between 1940s and 1960s boosted agriculture production worldwide, especially in the developing countries. This initiative was spearheaded by eminent Indian geneticist Dr MS Swaminathan who, together with his team, worked to raise wheat production in India by increasing high-yielding wheat varieties.

His resolve to end hunger came after witnessing the Great Bengal famine of 1943, when he was a student at the University of Kerala. Following the death of 3 million people who died in this famine due to acute rice shortage, US-educated Dr Swaminathan took up a role with the Indian government in 1954 and worked to increase wheat and potato yield by developing new strains of food grains and vegetables with high-yield patterns suitable for the unpredictable Indian monsoon.

After the results started showing, India moved from a nation that depended on other countries to satiate its hunger to food self-sufficiency through sustainable development. Even now, the major focus is on food security, along with the preservation of biodiversity.

Although this strategy has yielded excellent results, the fact that India has not set up an efficient food management system has been a major blow to its economy. Every few months, food prices spiral out of control while food inflation had also destabilised governments. In the recent months, food inflation has remained stubbornly high, with the wholesale inflation of food clocking 18.2%.

This is mainly due to the failure to preserve whatever the country produces through its diverse agricultural systems. A predominantly agrarian economy, India has been a rather subdued player when it comes to exporting fruits and vegetables. A cold-chain infrastructure to preserve the produce is the crying need of the hour. However, successive governments have failed to address this problem efficiently.

Reasons for this are many. Dedicated road and rail connectivity to transport food grains, fruits and vegetables is poor. International players do see an opportunity here, but not many of them are willing to enter the market owing to the absence of uniform policies across states that produce specific yields in high quantities.

Although the government has been making efforts to control food wastage by carrying out capacity-building exercises in India, the attempts have fallen miserably short of the overall requirement.

The country throws away fresh produce worth Rs 133 billion as adequate cold storage facilities for preserving food grains and vegetables do not exist here. India has about 6,300 cold storage units, spread rather haphazardly across the states, to preserve 30.11 million metric tonnes of food. But that is just half of what the country needs to save its produce of 61 million metric tonnes. To create an infrastructure of this scale and keep up with the current food production, the country requires an investment of Rs 550 billion by or before 2014-15.

While all this is about fresh produce, the extent of cooked food being wasted on various occasions is simply mindboggling. For instance, Bangalore, known as the IT capital of India, wastes about 943 tonnes of high-calorie quality food every year as the city hosts nearly 1 lakh marriages annually. The city alone contributes to the wastage of Rs 339 crore as far as food is concerned.

With the country expecting a record food grain output of 259 million tonnes this year alone, the food may well land in garbage heaps and rot in warehouses unless the government increases the efficiency of its public distribution system (PDS), which reaches the poorest of the poor through its agencies. However, the country, which has seen consistent growth in GDP, must also realise the need to protect its food grains from landing up in dumps.

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