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Impoverished India

Impoverished India

Doesn’t this title with a ring of pessimism raise the eyebrows of those revel in the ‘Incredible India’? Well, for those 101 Indian billionaires, with Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani with a net worth of $23.2 billion currently leading the pack, taking  the 33rd position in the list of the world-billionaires (2,043) and making India home to world’s fourth highest number of billionaires, ‘impoverished India’ would be an insult. But not for the 224 million Indians who live below poverty line and 50% of the country’s 217 million children who endure multi-dimensional poverty. The latter group corroborates the recently published Global Hunger Index (GHI), 2017 that has placed India on a high rank of #100 in hunger index. 

India is exposed to a “serious” hunger problem that has given it a rank of 100 out of 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index, trailing behind North Korea, Bangladesh and Iraq. The GHI-2017 has dealt a heavy blow to India’s vain adjectives as ‘incredible, shine, digital, new’ et al tagged only to draw political mileage. Ranking 119 countries in the developing world based on four key indicators, namely ‘undernourishment, child mortality, child wasting and child stunting’, the GHI, now in its 12th year, has clubbed them under ‘extremely alarming,’ ‘alarming’ or ’serious’ hunger levels. India’s high ranking on the Global Hunger Index [GHI] again this year discloses the disturbing reality of the country’s stubbornly high proportions of malnourished  children.

Few issues in India have been more politicized down the years than poverty. The vote-bank politics of India loves the poor only to perpetuate poverty as a tool to garner votes out of loud slogans of its alleviation around every election. This cruel hobby has been taking a heavy toll on starvation deaths in India. Headlines have recently been screaming on a series of starvation deaths in India.  The BJP government in Jharkhand has been facing growing controversy over hunger deaths in the state. Close on the heels of the 11-year-old Santoshi’s death in Simdega after her family was allegedly denied ration for want of Aadhaar-linked ration card, a 45-year-old Baijnath Ravidas, a rickshaw puller from Jharia in Dhanbad, was reported to have died of starvation.

Yet another alleged starvation death took place in Jharkhand's Deoghar district. Ruplal Marandi (64) of Thadiyara village had been deprived of food for the last few days. Marandi's family of three, including his daughter  Sanodi was reportedly refused subsidized food grains by the local PDS shop as her thumb impression did not match with the biometric records (October 25, 2017,  tps://timesofindia.indiatimes.com).

The tragic fact that within a month, three families in the BJP-ruled tribal state have lost a member each, that too after being refused subsidized supplies they’ve been entitled to, should stir the conscience of every discerning citizen of India. The officials rejecting the claim of starvation-deaths and blaming them on some disease is a sad commentary on the administration. Playing ostrich on poverty is of no help. It can only further impoverish the country.

Jharkhand has been facing a serious health crisis. The state has the sixth worst infant mortality rate in India, worse than the African nation of Ethiopia (41). The death of 52 infants over 30 days at Jamshedpur's Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College hospital in Jharkhand,  reported on 27 August, 2017, exposes the   extent of malnutrition in India's 10th  poorest state by per capita income. Forty of these 52 infant deaths were in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and 12 in the pediatric intensive care unit. “Thirty-eight of the 40 infant deaths in NICU were due to low birth weight, other deaths were due to premature births and other complications like asphyxia,” ( IndiaSpend, Aug, 29, 2017, http://www.firstpost.com).

As per the report of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), since 2014 India’s ranking on the Global Hunger Index has worsened by “a dramatic 45 points in 3 years down from 55th to 100.” It is trailing behind even North Korea, Iraq and Bangladesh. A score of 9.9 or lower denotes low hunger; while scores between 35.0 and 49.9 denote alarming hunger, and a score of 20-34.9 means ‘serious’ problem of hunger. Although India has made a considerable improvement in reducing its child stunting rate, down 29 per cent since 2000, the country still has a considerably high stunting rate of 38.4. As of 2015-16, more than a fifth (21 per cent) of children suffered from wasting (low weight for height).

According to a recent report by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), a poverty reduction project, about 31% of the world’s “multi-dimensionally poor” children live in India. A “multi-dimensionally poor” child is one who lacks at least one-third of ten indicators, grouped into three dimensions of poverty: health, education and standard of living. The health dimension comprises indicators such as nutrition, child mortality, and education ( June 02, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com).

While poverty-alleviation down the years has been a pet topic of India’s vote bank politics, few political parties, while in power, have honestly and systematically toiled to reduce, if not eradicate, it. Given the huge size of India’s poor population, every party around election time, rushes to win their support with loud promises of a better tomorrow. But once in power every government-funded project becomes a potential money-spinner for corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and contractors.

Food, clothing, shelter, education, basic healthcare and personal security are fundamental human rights which are to be provided to all the citizens of a welfare state by the government. India in the last few years is awash with schemes designed to "empower" the most socially and economically disadvantaged sections. Stand up India, Start up India, Skill India, Make in India, Digital India, Clean India…. the list is endless. But despite this sudden burst of "initiatives" and the government over-egging its achievements, the gap between the rich and the poor widens where millions of Indians feel excluded from the country’s much-hyped growth story.

With all the boasting of the most widely merited subsidies in grains and provisions to those living below the poverty line, the road to getting the subsidies to the deserving is dotted with blocks. It’s an area where late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously admitted that for every subsidy rupee the government spends on anti-poverty programmes, only 20 paise (two-tenths of a rupee) reached the poor.

Subsidies and doles may bring temporary solace to the poor, but nutrition goes beyond subsidies. A high GDP growth rate alone is no guarantee of food and nutrition security for India’s vast majority. A revamping of India’s public health sector with special emphasis on the mother-child care is the need of the hour.  India’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 of Zero Hunger for everyone by 2030 cannot be realized sans addressing inequality in its varied hues.

"The true wealth of a nation consists not in the stored-up gold but in the intellectual and physical strength of its people,” asserted C.V. Raman, the Indian physicist of Nobel fame. It’s urgent that the policy makers grasp the truth of his wise words and follow it to redeem today’s ‘impoverished India’ by making her people intelligent and healthy. Although 70 years down the line of independence, free India has lifted millions out of poverty and has carried out an impressive reform effort, India needs to invest more in health, education, skills, opportunities and overall well-being of her people.

Only an inclusive, people-centred growth can represent “the true wealth of a nation”. Wallowing at the bottom of the hunger index is a big national shame to one of the fastest growing economies in the world eager to win the title of a super power. With such a disgraceful hunger index and the series of starvation deaths tarnishing India’s image, hasn’t today’s India unfortunately won the dubious distinction of an ‘impoverished country’?

(Published on 30th October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 44)