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The Deccan Herald, Bangalore, 14 Nov 2008
Hunger and inequality
Prasenjit Chowdhury
The prognosis by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen that India might actually become two countries in economic terms, one with all the pomp and éclat of the Silicon Valley and the other like the Sub-Saharan Africa, must not count as a crude joke. According to the 2008 Global Hunger Index compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India ranks 66th out of 88 nations. Despite years of robust economic growth, India scored worse than nearly 25 Sub-Saharan African countries and all of South Asia, except Bangladesh. On the other two components of the Global Hunger Index — child underweight and child mortality — India ranks below Bangladesh.

Madhya Pradesh ranks between Ethiopia and Chad. Punjab, the best-performing state, ranks below Gabon, Honduras, and Vietnam. India’s rates of child malnutrition are higher than most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Now if you consider that these rankings were made using pre-2006 data and do not reflect the ongoing ‘crisis’ of rising food prices in the context, consider how the departing US President George W Bush blamed Indians, for eating more and precipitating a world food crisis, alluding to prosperity in countries like India and China to have increased demand for better nutrition. There had been a hushed tone of self-congratulation among a section of Indians believing in the pumped up glory of a resurgent India.

The findings of the ICFRI, of an India going hungry talks about the 17 major states included in the study, 12 fall in the ‘alarming’ category, and one state — Madhya Pradesh — falls in the ‘extremely alarming’ category. Ironically, even high growth states, such as Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, have high levels of hunger, which simply means that there is a large pool of people who go hungry simply because they have no purchasing power.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen found the solution to poverty and famines, as lying in increasing the “entitlement” of the poor. But detractors say that in a system where “entitlement” to food, clothing, housing etc. depends on having money, there would always be people who (through illness, incapacity, old age etc.) can’t sell their ability to work, or, because of its low quality, can’t sell it for a high enough price to cover their basic needs.

The not-so-simple problem is that the world’s population has continued to grow while its food production has not. For the fifty years between 1945 and 1995, as the world’s population more than doubled, grain production kept pace but then it stalled. In the last few years, the human race has consumed more grain than it grew. The rate of growth of food grain production in India was zero between 1996-97 and 2004-05, and the population growth rate was higher in the same period. But the problem certainly is, while some have wider access to food, more have not.

Take a closer look at the growing disparity of wealth, which certainly includes the inequality of food distribution and our faulty public distribution system Each year over eight million people die worldwide because they are simply too poor to stay alive. More than 800 million people go hungry every day. The gross domestic product of the poorest 48 nations is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people. Thirty-thousand children die every day due to hunger and treatable illnesses. Six million children die every year before their fifth birthday, as a result of malnutrition. According to the Human Development Report (HDR) 2002, the richest one per cent of the world’s people receives as much income each year as the poorest 57 per cent. The richest five per cent of the world’s people have incomes 114 times those of the poorest five per cent. In India, the bottom 40 per cent of the population remains at poverty levels with consumption of barely 2,400 calories a day. Take the instance of Mumbai, the country’s super-rich, in which, according to the World Bank, 54 per cent of the city’s 15 million residents live in slums.

One cannot but wonder which India is more real. An India that cannot feed a large section of her people, while sending an expensive mission to the moon? Inequalities and injustices continue to be the most important cause of the persistence of poverty and deprivation in India.

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