BI Investigation: India’s food nightmare is killing millions of children across the country every day

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India has emerged as the world’s fastest growing economy. However, Asia’s third largest economy just ranked 97th among 118 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). This puts the country behind even Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, and Nigeria in the hunger map.

India’s policy addressing hunger and malnutrition in all age groups has a feast of questions and a famine of answers. India’s hunger, being worse than any sub-Saharan country, needs crisis management and a long term vision.

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Be it Manohar Das of Tewri village in Jharkhand, who works in hundred days of wage-employment or Shib Baksha of Amlasol village in West Midnapore district of West Bengal, who works as contract labour at nearby village, the thin line that connects them is the ignorance about ‘Modi Sarkar’. The only thing they understand by the government is getting staples at Rs 2/kg and free goodies. However, staples alone can’t fulfill nutritional needs, as a result they end up with stunted growth and other diseases. Not everyone is as lucky as them. Their neighbours, unable to procure BPL (below poverty level) identity cards and Ration Cards aren’t entitled to these basic facilities and have to starve most of the days. Only feast they can think of is ant eggs roast during the scorching summer months.

India’s overall GDP growth is expected to end at 7.1% this financial year , as compared to 4.6% two years back. While food still counts as the basic requirement of human existence, India is a country that not only produces enough, but ironically, there is never enough for its ever growing population to eat. Funnily, while millions go hungry, for India storage of surplus food has always been a problem.

India’s hunger-management disaster
While development in many sectors is acknowledged, what is lesser known is that India has also made considerable progress on many social fronts, such as fertility decline, expansion of schooling and bridging the gender gap in education, especially at the primary and lower secondary levels. However, there is one area of human development , where India has been a disaster: tackling hunger and malnutrition.

Child malnutrition rates in India are extraordinarily high- among the highest in the world, with nearly one-half of all children under 3 years of age being either underweight or stunted. Indeed, child malnutrition rates are higher in India than in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, even though income levels are significantly higher and levels of infant and child mortality are lower in India.

Pediatric malnutrition
Prevalence of child malnutrition in India has remained stubbornly high even after nearly a half-century of respectable agricultural productivity growth and two decades of post-reform economic growth and prosperity in the country. Adding more support to the view that child malnutrition is weakly correlated with income is the finding that among children of mothers with 10 or more years of schooling as well as mothers from the top income quintile, around one-quarter are underweight. Even in a relatively prosperous and dynamic state like Gujarat, child malnutrition rates have been stagnant over the past decade.


The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) found that a significant number of adults in India suffer from malnutrition. Almost 58 per cent of pregnant women aged 15-49 were found to be anaemic. The Global Food Security Index also revealed that Indians lack adequate quantities of iron, Vitamin A and protein in their diets .

“Half of the children who die before five years of age have malnutrion as a cause in their pathogenesis. If we look at proportion of weight at birth, 23 per cent of children weigh less than 2.5 kg, which is below normal. This low birth weight has its reason in the womb, which is where they are malnourished already before being born. Low birth weight increases over time and so by the time they are three-years-old, half the children are malnourished. Because of poor sanitation we have widespread faecal oral contamination . Water and food sources have high degrees of contamination and it results in diarrhoea and other gastro intestinal illnesses, which increases the child mortality rate,” said renowned public health specialist and activist Dr Binayak Sen.

State of famine
In 1943, three million people died in the infamous Bengal famine . There was no shortage of grain in Bengal at that time, yet people had nothing to eat. Interpreting the Famine of 1943, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen suggested that the reason for it was the breakdown of the social arrangement in distributing food. To put the matter in a world context, every three seconds somewhere around the world, a child dies of causes related to avoidable malnutrition. "In those three seconds, the world armaments industry spends 120,000 USD in order to keep the system responsible safely in place,” Binayak Sen told Business Insider.

Ignorant policies that do the most harm
Skyrocketing prices of daily food items spell more woe for the people, who are already paying "too much" to survive. International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD) Rural Poverty Report-2011 states, “While international food prices have declined since mid-2008, they are still substantially higher than prior to the price surge, and they are likely to remain at 2010 levels or higher for the next decade.” The report has suggested that about 100 million of world’s rural and urban people have to remain hungry.

“It will remain high, the era of cheap food is over," said Richard Mahapatra, managing editor of Down to Earth. "This is because productivity of agriculture is low and thus impacts production. This is the supply side issue. Also the rainfed areas that contribute a signifcant amount of foodgrain is not getting the policy focus. Even though the new second Green Revolution is aimed at that, it seems to be flawed. Now, the demand side. Demand is increasing but we don't have robust distribution mechanism. So, it creates further price rise. Also, there is huge diversion of agricultural lands to other uses. Combined with low productivity, less lands and absence of distribution mechanism, we are set for high price rise.”

Due to the PDS (Public Distribution System) and the public wage programmes starvation deaths have definitely come down, he contended. Often we call cheap food grain programmes as populist. They are indeed popular as poor find them useful and their starvation is avoided with this entitlement.

Adult malnutrition
“Roughly 33-35 per cent of the entire Indian population have a BMI below 18.5, which is indicative of calorie malnutrition. They aren't getting enough food to eat. More than one-third of India is on a chronic basis not getting proper food to eat. Low BMI is also restricting people’s immunity,” said Binayak Sen.

“Without addressing nutritional status, there can be no adequate development. Food Security Act does nothing for betterment of nutritional status of the poeple as such. The Bill is like 'something is better than nothing'. Five kilos of wheat per person per month make two chapattis per day. With two chapatis the nutritional question isn’t answered. This terrible nutritional deficit is yielding polarization in society,” he added.

Urban malnutrition
In villages, people stay in close bond with each other, who can be approached for help in times of crisis . Migrating people in cities start living in slums and ghettos, where they have to live with people unknown and untrustworthy. Moreover, people fight here to make ends meet, which actually leads to self-centric attitude.

Red corridor hunger
“People who are in chronic situation and stable famine are able to withstand only because of their access to natural resources like land, water and forest," opined Binayak Sen. " Access to this resources was unrestricted . Designating the common properties as commodities that can be owned by corporates is restricting poeple’s right to access and in a way right to live. Any form of resistance is labelled as insurgency. First they try civil ways and then take recourse in military measures. People have to confront. Application of eminent domain needs to be questioned. Under 5th schedule, govt has to ensure people’s access to natural resources but there is not a single instances of government intervening.”

“They have mapped it as red corridor but poeple’s deprivation hasn't been mapped yet," said Sen.

"We need to relook at the arm forces and UAPA laws. Whole discourse in election has become restricted to attitudes to development. Development is about accessing resources. Nobody is saying there are vital issues involved. What is going to happen to the poeple whose right has been denied? State will not be thwarted in its course. There needs to be a contestaion in the level of people. They need to raise the issue.”

Business Insider’s Take
Agriculture contributes around 16 per cent to India’s GDP ; it is coming down over the years. But still 60 per cent people depend on this. What does this mean? Is it that it is reliable as a source of livelihood or people don't have any other source thus depend on agriculture? In both the cases, shifting people out of agriculture is going to be a tough challenge. Industries or the service sectors have their own limitation and can't absorb such a huge number of people. Strategically, this will be a blunder as we kill out food self-sufficiency.
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