India Starving

The economists have predicted a growth rate of over nine per cent for India in the years to come. It is heartening to see that we are making progress. But one thing that I am unsure of is the implication of this growth rate.

Statistics and numbers are like mini skirts; they reveal a lot but conceal the significant bits. And the same is applicable to the growth rate story. There is no denying that in the last few years we have made substantial progress in many spheres, but the development has been concentrated in urban areas and the beneficiaries are those who belong to the elite group.

Agriculture, which supports more than 65 per cent of the population, is growing at the dismal rate of three per cent. India ranks 94th in the global hunger index according to a report released by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). India’s score is 25.03, compared with 8.37 for China, which is 47th on the list. Libya tops the list with a score of 0.87. Between 1981 and 1992, India‚Äôs score fell from 41 to 32 and then to 25 by 1997. This means that India has stagnated and has failed in feeding its poor in the last decade or so.

India claims to be a food surplus nation, which is true. Yet we feature amongst the hungriest nations. The ‘credit’ for this paradox goes to the change in the food policy of India in the early 1990s. At that time, the government of India decided to increase the price (or decrease the ‘subsidy’) of grains and commodities in the public distribution system (PDS – the ‘ration shops’). It had two consequences. One, it made food out of reach for the poor. Two, it made India a food surplus nation, since those, who require it badly can no longer afford it.

The government presents a beautiful picture of the country, that we are a developing economy which will overtake China in the next decade and become a superpower. No issues with that. But one should be true to one’s assessment.

With the inflation soaring at 11.5 per cent, the life of a poor man has become more miserable. The people in villages (barely few hundred kilometers from our financial capital) have not eaten vegetables for the last few months. The adults have literally given up eating at night. This is perhaps the story of every household, which depends on daily wages or meager monthly incomes.

India also has the distinction of being home to the largest number of malnourished children. Child malnutrition is a leading cause of child and adult mortality. It is estimated to play a role in about 50 percent of all child deaths, and more than half of the child deaths are caused by malaria (57 per cent), diarrhea (61 percent) and pneumonia (52 percent). So we are failing to feed our children as well. What exactly does this growth rate imply when considered in accordance to the fact that the majority of the population of our country is unable to secure their daily bread?

Recently, the reply to an RTI (Right to Information) appeal filed by Dev Ashish Bhattacharya said that over 10 lakh tonnes of food grains worth several hundred crores of rupees – which could have fed over one crore hungry people for a year, was damaged in the godowns of Food Corporation of India (FCI) during the last decade. The damages were suffered despite the FCI spending Rs 242 crore to prevent the loss of food grains during storage. Ironically, another Rs 2.59 crore was spent just to dispose off the rotten food grains. Isn’t this a ridiculous situation where you waste your food grains – which could have supplied food for millions and on the other hand you cite the shortage of food and raise the price of grains 2-3 times in a span of few months.

I sometimes wonder what these policy makers do when they have failed to control inflation, food management, hunger and malnutrition. Their policies have just made the life of the poor even more pathetic. Yet they claim that we are growing at the rate of nine per cent!

Rishabh Srivastava

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