Diwali holidays are over and children have returned to schools for another grueling session of academics and extracurricular activities. A vast number of children, especially those belonging to government schools, have returned thinking they will get the mid-day meal. However, 11-year-old Santoshi Kumari did not live to celebrate this Diwali. With no school mid-day meals available during Durga Puja holidays, Santoshi had gone with barely any food for nearly eight days before she died. Hunger and starvation killed her.
Santoshi came from an impoverished family in Jharkhand’s Simdega district. The family of the girl had been removed from the state’s public distribution system because either they did not have Aadhaar cards or their Aadhaar cards were not linked to the new list issued by the government. The details are open to debate and scrutiny. The only absolute fact is that in a country on track to joining the league of superpowers, hunger killed a poor girl – one that belonged to the lowest of the lows.
The government flaunts a surging economy, but if the recent Global Hunger Index rankings are to be believed, the prevalence of hunger in India is at the “high end of serious category”. The annual Global Hunger Index, calculated by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, has put India at the 100th place among 119 countries in its recent estimation. India plummeted three places from its last year’s 97th rank. In the past three years, India has recorded a fall of 55 points, revealing the wide gaps between rhetoric, promises and action.
The world produces 17 percent more food per person today than 30 years ago. But close to a billion people go to sleep hungry every night. Even though it is said that the world has enough to feed its population, hunger persists.
To capture the multidimensional nature of hunger, GHI scores are based on four component indicators:
Undernourishment: the share of the population that is undernourished (that is, whose caloric intake is insufficient);
Child wasting: the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (that is, who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition);
Child stunting: the share of children under the age of five who are stunted (that is, who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition); and
Child mortality: the mortality rate of children under the age of five (in part, a reflection of the fatal mix of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environments).
Given that three-quarters of South Asia’s population resides in India, the situation here strongly influences South Asia’s regional score. At 31.4, India’s 2017 GHI score is at the high end of the serious category. India’s child wasting rate has not substantially improved over the past 25 years and its child stunting rate is still relatively high at 38.4 percent, even though it has decreased in each of the reference periods, down from 61.9 percent in 1992.
The GHI report notes that India has implemented a “massive scale-up” of two national programs that address nutrition — the Integrated Child Development Services and the National Health Mission — but these have yet to achieve adequate coverage. Areas of concern, according to the GHI report, include:
(1) the timely introduction of complementary foods for young children (that is, the transition away from exclusive breastfeeding), which declined from 52.7 percent to 42.7 percent between 2006 and 2016;
(2) the share of children between 6 and 23 months old who receive an adequate diet — a mere 9.6 percent for the country; and
(3) household access to improved sanitation facilities -- a likely factor in child health and nutrition -- which stood at 48.4 percent as of 2016.
Hunger, or its many forms like malnutrition or undernourishment, is a complex problem, which is further aggravated by inequality. In the same world where around 800 million people go hungry and 2 billion suffer from some form of malnutrition, more than a third of the adult population is obese and a third of all food produced is lost or wasted. While the problems in the world food system are vast, they are also unevenly spread. Typically, groups with the least social, economic, or political power have been burdened with the menace of hunger or malnutrition — whether they are barely eking out a living in remote rural areas of poor countries or residing in marginalized communities in the big cities of wealthy states. This uneven distribution of hunger and malnutrition is rooted in inequalities of social, political, and economic power.
The low status of women in society and the family framework makes matters worse. Women possess low or no education and have no say in matters that concern them or their family. They do not get adequate diet, which means they themselves are undernourished. The children born to these women also end up being undernourished. These women and children require not just food, proper sanitation and cleanliness are just as important. Lack of sanitation can cause recurrent diseases like diarrhoea which further drains out the nourishment of a person. These undernourished children grow up to be undernourished adults whose level of productivity falls way below properly nourished adults.
In his national address on the occasion of the 71st Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi waxed eloquently about his vision for a New India and exhorted the citizens several times to make sacrifices. For Team India to take form as New India, it is needless to say, there are several hurdles that need to be overcome. One of the hurdles is the plague of hunger crisis. But, unfortunate as it is, the grand scheme, which also includes plans of catapulting Mr Modi to supreme leadership for another term, only brings under its fold grander topics like black money and digitisation of the economy. Yes, digitisation helps and the menace of black money needs to be sorted, but in no single way is any of this useful to the poor living on the streets, the ones for whom two square meals a day is a luxury.
Is it that the hunger crisis will be taken into consideration only if it is raised through the Narendra Modi App? Till then, does the government plan to turn a blind eye to the plight of the vast majority of this country? October 16th was observed as World Food Day and the very next day, the 17th, was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Let’s take stock. How many in our country would have heaved a sigh of relief thinking the government is doing enough to feed them and enable them to battle poverty? Hardly any. One look-around is enough to send that message ringing. Is there no political will to tackle the hunger problem or the catastrophe of poverty?
As it stands now, since the time Mr Modi rose to power in 2014, relentless focus on winning elections has helped Bharatiya Janata Party bag key states, which in turn has lent them legislative muscle. The electoral strength led to greater confidence in the Rajya Sabha and the election of Ram Nath Kovind and Venkaiah Naidu as President and Vice-President respectively. Now with the two apparatchiks taking up top constitutional seats, there is little to no opposition and nothing stopping Modi government from going full steam ahead. Then, why is it that the Modi government not investing itself in putting an end to the hunger pangs and food crises of the impoverished, one wonders.
The state of other poor-friendly schemes leaves much to be desired. A case in point is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which was started in 2006 to enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of wage employment. Described as the largest employment programme in human history, MNREGA had at the time of its inception reaffirmed India’s position as a welfare state. Under the BJP government, MNREGA has hit rough weather with wage payments being frozen in 19 states across the country. The NREGA Sangharsh Morcha blames the Central government, banks and post offices for the delays in payments worth at least Rs 3,066 crores to lakhs of workers. Assured employment even if for 100 days means a steady income and a sure-fire way to eradicate poverty, which in turn means there will be food, shelter and clothing. But if the income itself is missing then what is the point behind working?
In matters of health, India now has a National Health Policy and a National Nutrition Strategy. The Niti Aayog has recommended that the government develop a full-fledged web-enabled nutrition information system. But, of what use is this to the poor on the streets who do not have a roof over their heads? What use is this if the granaries are overflowing and the produce is going stale if none of it reaches the masses?
The present government on its part has not to date started any scheme that can benefit the poor in terms of their food requirements. The only ongoing project in this regard is the Antyodaya Anna Yojana that was started by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as early as 2000. This scheme includes rice, wheat and sugar among other essentials for families falling under the Below Poverty Line category.
For example, rice is given to families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana at Rs 3/kg since 2002. While the cost of providing this has increased from Rs 11/kg in 2001-02 to Rs 33/kg in 2017-18, there are no records on the quality of rice being provided.
Additionally, under the National Food Security Act, also known as Right to Food Act, it is mandated that subsidized food grains must be provided to approximately two-thirds of the country’s population.
Santhoshi Kumari and her family were not benefitted from either of the two relief schemes that have been put in place by the previous governments. It is not the lack of food that killed Santhoshi, but the lack of access to food that took her life. She died because her access to ration was dependent on information stored in an online database that required internet connectivity to access. She died because of lack of synchronization between different government databases. She died because the government’s implementation process is flawed. For all the chest-thumping about Digital India, there’s clearly a need to take the efficiency of the digitized systems a few notches higher. The ugly truth is that despite vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being poured into grandiose schemes to “alleviate” poverty, children like Santhoshi continue to die.
After having been turned away from the local fair price shop because of inadequate documentation, Santhoshi and her family had survived on the mercy of their neighbours. We do not know how many Santhoshis are relying on their neighbours – worse still on merciless landlords, greedy masters, avaricious shopkeepers selling overpriced grains – for their survival. Only time will tell how many Sathoshis this country will lose due to the callousness and apathy of power-wielders.
Meanwhile, the least the present centre of power and government think tanks can do is give shape to a solid system that ensures no person goes to sleep hungry, that there are no more Santhoshis in this country, and that everybody irrespective of their economic position has the right to food. If it makes the Bharatiya Janata Party any happier, they can name it after Deen Dayal Upadhyay. The country doesn’t mind as long as its citizens are well fed.(Published on 30th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 44)