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Hunger Pangs

Hunger Pangs

On 3 September 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to examine a plea that starvation deaths in India continue to eat into the right to life and dignity of the social fabric of the country and that a ‘radical’ new measure like community kitchens needs to be set up all over the country to feed the millions of poor and hungry. The Supreme Court, which has sent a notice to the Government, was responding to a public interest litigation filed by some activists in an attempt to end the gnawing pangs of hunger which is the lot of a fairly sizeable section of Indian society today.

In mid-October, when the Global Hunger Index (GHI) was released, India was placed at an abysmal 102 out of the 117 countries ranked. The annual index is designed to measure and track hunger at the global, national and regional levels and to assess progress and setbacks in combating hunger. India is now ranked below Pakistan (94), Bangladesh (88) and Sri Lanka (66) among South Asian nations. According to the report prepared by Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, India is among the 45 countries that have serious levels of hunger. "In India, just 9.6 per cent of all children between six to 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet. As of 2015-2016, 90 per cent of Indian households used an improved drinking water source while 39 per cent of households had no sanitation facilities (IIPS and ICF 2017)," said the report.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is an international tool designed to comprehensively measure and track hunger at global, regional, and national levels. GHI scores are calculated each year to assess progress and setbacks in combating hunger. They help raise awareness and understanding of the struggle against hunger and provide a way to compare levels of hunger among countries. The GHI is based on four key indicators:

Undernourishment : the share of the population that is undernourished (insufficient caloric intake)

Child wasting : the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition)

Child stunting : the share of children under the age of five who are stunted (low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition)

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)

This pathetic ranking on the GHI speaks volumes of the lack of political will of the current Government to address the endemic issues which are the cause of hunger, deprivation and poverty. Of course, the Government is as usual on the denial mode and doing all they can to say that the ranking is not completely factual. This is a typical response from a regime which does not want to face the truth and goes overboard with well-oiled propaganda machinery with half-truths, lies and fabricated data. The GHI lays bare one fact: on 2 October, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared at a programme in Ahmedabad that rural India was 'Open Defecation Free' (ODF); the GHI report however states that "In 2014 the Prime Minister instituted the 'Clean India' campaign to end open defecation and ensure that all households had latrines. Even with new latrine construction, open defecation is still practiced. This situation jeopardizes the population's health and consequently children's growth and development as their ability to absorb nutrients is compromised."

The Government is extremely cautious in revealing data related to hunger and starvation deaths. In fact, these figures are just played down or conveniently swept under the carpet. Last June of the 163plus reported starvation deaths reported from Bihar more than 130 deaths were reported from the Muzaffarpur district alone; that most of the children who died suffered from a high degree of malnutrition was obvious. Suicides by small farmers all over India continue unabated; a case of yet another farmer committing suicide in so-called “developed” Gujarat was reported as recently as 24 October.

In fact the petition in the Supreme Court is painfully clear in its detailing , “ t he statistics on starvation deaths in the country are unavailable and starvation as the cause of death can only be ascertained upon autopsy after death ; global agencies report that over three lakh children die every year in India because of hunger, whereas 38 per cent below the age of five are stunted.   The plea goes on to add, "in the interest of justice and for entitlement of nutritious food, which has been held as a basic fundamental and human right, in both national and international law, alike, the establishment of community kitchens may be directed as an added mechanism for provision of nutritious food with the intent of holistically combating eradication of hunger, malnutrition and starvation in the country, and diseases, illnesses and deaths resulting thereof;" emphatically stating that, " Article 21 embarks that right to life does not mean mere existence, but life with dignity and on the other hand the Centre and state governments as well as ministries in the present grim scenario have failed to fulfil their obligations for effectively providing food security in the country."

It is true that there has been a systemic failure on the part of the Central Government and several State Governments to fulfil their obligations to provide food security in the country. Thanks to the previous UPA Government the ‘Right to Food’ became a reality for many millions in the country. The entitlements the poor received, the enhanced effectiveness of the Public Distribution System (PDS) went a long way in alleviating poverty and bringing down the hunger which many were subject to. Sadly, the current regime is doing everything possible to negate this important instrument and to also make it ineffective.

According to FAO estimates in ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2019' report, 194.4 million people (a mind-boggling number on any count) are undernourished in India; thus, making India home to the largest undernourished population in the world. By this measure 14.5% of the population is undernourished in India. Also, 51.4% of women in reproductive age between 15 to 49 years are anaemic. Further according to the report 37.9% of the children aged under five in India are stunted (too short for their age), while 20.8% suffer from wasting, meaning their weight is too low for their height. Malnourished children have a higher risk of death from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, and malaria.

Any thinking Indian will be ashamed of such factual data. None of those who screamed and yelled in Texas last September and sang paeans about the ‘progress’ India has made will have the guts to leave the comfort of US and to return to India for good.   India has never witnessed or experienced a regime which is so blatantly corrupt or shown a total disregard to the plight of millions of people and where almost 4,000 children die daily due to malnutrition and hunger. The Government today clearly sides with the rich; helping them and other vested interests grow richer every day.

In January this year, OXFAM released a path -breaking report titled, 'Reward Work, Not Wealth'. According to that report, the wealth of India’s richest increased by over Rs 20.9 lakh crore during the period under review-an amount close to the total expenditure estimated in the Union Budget 2017. India's top 1% of the population now holds 73% of the wealth while 67 crore citizens, comprising the country's poorest half, saw their wealth rise by just 1%.Oxfam India CEO Nisha Agrawal said at the release, “The billionaire boom is not a sign of a thriving economy but a symptom of a failing economic system. Those working hard, growing food for the country, building infrastructure, working in factories are struggling to fund their child's education, buy medicines for family members and manage two meals a day. The growing divide undermines democracy and promotes corruption and cronyism." Things certainly have gone very bad for the Indian economy if, as the report says, it will take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in rural India to earn what the top paid executive at a leading Indian garment firm earns in a year.

On ‘World Food Day’ (16 October)2019, in a message to the Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Pope Francis said, “The yearly celebration of World Food Day makes us hear the dramatic plea of those of our brothers and sisters who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Despite efforts made in recent decades, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is yet to be implemented in many parts of the world. As a way of responding to this plea of our brothers and sisters, the theme chosen by FAO this year – “Our Actions Are Our Future. Healthy Diets for a #ZeroHunger World” – points to the distorted relationship between food and nutrition”.

Strongly adding, “the battle against hunger and malnutrition will not end as long as the logic of the market prevails and profit is sought at any cost, with the result that food is relegated to a mere commercial product subject to financial speculation and with little regard for its cultural, social and indeed symbolic importance. Our first concern should always be the human person: concrete men, women and children, especially those who lack daily food and have a limited ability to manage family and social relationships (cf.  Laudato Si’ , 112-113). When priority is given to the human person, humanitarian aid operations and development programs will surely have a greater impact and will yield the expected results. We must come to realize that we are accumulating and wasting is the bread of the poor”.

A few days ago, when well-known economists Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, were announced as the 2019 Nobel Prize winners for Economics, some from the current political dispensation literally pooh-poohed their intellectual prowess and their ability to grasp and address critical issues. These would do well to study and ensure implementation of ‘Poor Economics’ their pathbreaking book that helps one to understand the real causes of poverty and how to end it. Needless to say that this Government has put the economy into shambles keeping millions of Indians without a daily square meal. On this 150th year of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi let us at least pay heed to his words, there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread”.

(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights& peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 28th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 44)