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Hunger pains challenge India's development claims

Despite record production of grains, India is struggling with malnutrition and food waste

Irudaya Jothi, West Bengal

Irudaya Jothi, West Bengal

Published: November 15, 2018 04:16 AM GMT

Updated: November 15, 2018 04:36 AM GMT

Hunger pains challenge India's development claims

A file image of 4-year-old Indian malnourished child Komal Kumari on a bed at the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre at Darbhanga Medical College and hospital in Darbhanga in the eastern Indian state of Bihar. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

More than 130 countries, including India, are debating how to overcome the adverse effects of climate change, migration and poverty to achieve zero hunger.

The second of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all United Nations member states, is to achieve zero hunger by 2030. It aims to make sure that all people, especially children and the more vulnerable, have access to sufficient nutritious food all year round.

Is it possible for India to achieve that target by 2030?

India, with some 1.34 billion people, is near the bottom of the Global Hunger Index, ranked 100th out of 118 hungry counties. Among South Asian countries, it ranks third after Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This has happened despite the Indian government claiming record production of 277.49 million tonnes of food grains in 2017-18, which is 2.37 million tonnes more than the previous record.

India needs 225-230 million tonnes of food to feed its population, according to the World Economic Forum. 

Despite producing about 50 million tonnes of grain than it needs, why do millions of Indians go hungry and millions of children have stunted growth? What accounts for India's chronic food deficiency? Food production is clearly not the main issue.

India may be the world's largest milk producer and grow the second-largest quantity of fruits and vegetables (after China), but it is also the world's biggest food waster. As a result, fruit and vegetable prices are twice as high as what they should be, while milk costs 50 percent more than it should. Clearly, the poor do not get enough milk and fruit.

An estimated 21 million tonnes of wheat — equivalent to Australia's entire annual crop — rots or is eaten by insects every year because of inadequate storage and poor management at the government-run Food Corporation of India.

There are several reasons why so much perishable food is lost. Among them are the absence of modern food distribution chains, a lack of adequate and modern cold-storage facilities, poor transport systems, erratic electricity supply and a lack of incentives to invest in the sector.

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Abysmal poverty and unequal distribution of wealth are the biggest issues. Some 22 percent of the population live below the poverty line, meaning they do not have enough resources to have a full meal a day. Even the cheapest food is unfordable to them. At the same time, India was also home to 131 of the world's billionaires in 2017.

India's top 1 percent own more than 50 percent of the country's wealth. It is the world's second-largest food producer and yet is also home to the second-highest population of undernourished people in the world.

It is estimated that at least 194 million Indians sleep on empty stomachs daily and the country wastes food worth US$1.26 billion a year — or the staggering sum of food worth US$34 million every day.

Flaws in the distribution system alone waste 23 million tonnes of pulses, 12 million tonnes of fruits and 21 million tonnes of vegetables every year, according to a report by the Indian Institute of Public Administration.

Despite the government spending millions on several food security schemes, India regularly reports starvation deaths.

A major hindrance to fighting starvation is the lack of proper implementation of government food security schemes. The government needs to fight corruption at local levels and inaction among government officials to ensure that the schemes are implemented effectively.

For example, the government claims its midday meal scheme provides nutritious food to 12 million schoolchildren daily. Yet more than a third of the world's malnourished children live in India.

Some 44 percent of Indian children under the age of 5 are underweight and at least 72 percent of infants and 52 percent of married women have anemia, published documents show.

In 2013, India enacted the National Food Security Act to ensure food for all its citizens by providing subsidized food grains to all needy families. However, it was only in 2015 that several states began to implement it. 

In fact, many states have yet to implement one part of the law, which involves payment of 6,000 rupees (US$83) to mothers as maternity benefit to ensure nutrition during pregnancy.

Anuradha Talwar, a food rights activist in West Bengal, estimates that the state has 400,000 families who live by picking rags on the streets and at least 600,000 families who beg for food.

Such families and thousands of others do not have documents to prove their identity and domicile, which is necessary to enjoy the benefits of the state's food security schemes.

The state should take urgent steps to check food wastage, but it also should simplify regulations to provide food to the poor and needy.

Setting up community kitchens, improving school meals and ensuring nutritious food for expectant mothers through village child care centers are some of the suggestions put forward by food security activists.

Father Irudaya Jothi is a Jesuit social activist based in West Bengal state engaged in villagers' struggle for their food rights.

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