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India: Land of plenty and hunger

Stopping food wastage might lead to a hunger-free India

  • Ivan Fernandes, Kolkata
  • India
  • July 4, 2012
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When I was young I would often see street children waiting outside ice-cream shops and roadside eateries in what was then Calcutta to lick clean our discarded paper cups and plates.

For such nourishment these hungry waifs would often have to squabble among themselves or compete with street dogs.

Disgusting as it may seem, we were often reminded of this at home by our mother when we couldn’t finish our meal. “Think of the poor children on the road who don’t have food to eat. Finish up. Don’t waste,” she would say.

Over the years, as conditions in India improved, such scenes were all but forgotten till the other day when I was shocked to see two children fighting over a half-eaten sandwich from a garbage can in central Kolkata.

Just that morning I had read in the newspapers that India had recorded a bumper grain harvest of 240 million tons and that there was no space to store 12 million tons of it.

Inadequate storage facilities already cause around one-third of all food produced in India to go to waste every year.

Since then I have seen on television how sacks and sacks of food grain are left in open, football field-sized compounds to be pecked at by crows and spoiled by the monsoons. I have heard how the government spends 26 million rupees (US$472,730) annually to get rid of 600 trillion rupees-worth of grain that has rotted in storage.

Yet two children in a major metropolis were fighting over scraps of food.

This is symbolic of the situation in India where an estimated 30 percent of people live in an appalling state of malnutrition and quasi-starvation.

National Family Health Survey data shows that 43 percent of Indian children under five are underweight because of malnutrition and that despite the surplus of food production, India has among the worst nutrition indicators in the world. The United Nations World Food Program says 27 percent or more of the world’s undernourished people live in India.

I can understand if India did not produce enough food. I belong to a generation that would have to line up at the local bakery, praying that the bread would not run out before I reached the front of the line or pay extra to buy dal, rice and cooking oil on the black market because of scarcity.

But today, the government remains the country’s single largest procurer of food grain and has so much of it that it literally leaves it to rot while millions go hungry because they are too poor to buy food.

Understandably, the government may not have the money or resources to build adequate storage or have enough grain to feed every hungry mouth. But India cannot be so callous and immoral as to allow a lack of basic necessities to coexist with superabundance and waste. This contradiction must not be allowed to continue.

I have spent many an evening trying to think why this is so.

The Supreme Court, I think, has on more than one occasion directed that no one should die of hunger and that every Indian has a right to food.

The government does have ration shops and public distribution schemes, so it really isn’t that callous after all.

It even has a National Food Security bill before parliament that is yet to be passed because of a supposed lack of consensus on just who among the 350 million people living below the poverty line is most in need of food. Is it the destitute? Or those chronically malnourished? Is it the starving, homeless, barely alive or constantly hungry?

I am not a Maoist sympathizer but I do see the point in their argument that the government has to meet people's fundamental right to food and basic necessities. A law to guarantee that all Indians have access to adequate food is one way of doing this. The other way is for the government to do what must be done to curb wastage. Immediately!

But any law to be effective has to start with individuals and this reminds me again of my mother telling me not to waste food. Cheeky as I was then, I would always argue as to how eating my food was going to help the hungry street children. Now of course I know better.

Recent studies have shown that although hunger hotspots have become direr, about 20 percent of food is wasted even before it is purchased.

Double that amount is wasted afterwards. About 20 percent of the food at Indian weddings, parties and social functions as well as in restaurants and hotels is wasted.

Our own efforts at curbing wastage, coupled with what the government can do and legislate, I am sure will go a long way in guaranteeing a hungry-free India. After all, common sense says that waste food could go to feed the hungry. So how in conscience can we not do anything,  no matter how small, to alleviate the plight of those who go to bed hungry?

I have started to shop for only the things I need, to buy enough food that I can eat or keep at home without it spoiling. I have decided not to over order at restaurants or waste food at functions, taking only as much as I can eat.

What have you decided?

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