When hunger is no longer a priority, but business is

India, the world’s fastest growing economy, ranks fifth from the bottom in Asia in the Global Hunger Index and the country’s dismal performance attracted no reaction from the Union government

Photo by Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Harsh Mander

India’s global rankings made the headlines twice in the past year, and both times the news was dampening. The first report revealed that India’s place in the Global Hunger Index compiled by IFPRI fell from 83 in 2000 to 97 in 2016, with India scoring even lower than its much poorer neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal. The second disclosed that India’s rank in the World’s Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report rose by only one position, from 131 the previous year to 130, among 190 countries.

The tardy improvement in India’s Ease of Doing Business global rating led to immediate official statements of concern at senior levels of the union government. Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said she was ‘disappointed’, and Prime Minister Modi directed secretaries of the union government and chief secretaries of state governments to analyse expeditiously the reasons for sluggish progress, and identify areas for improvement both in central government departments and the states.

It is significant that India’s dismal performance in fighting hunger attracted no similar comment at senior levels of the union government. The volubility of the government on one and the silence on the other is in itself eloquent commentary on the priorities of government, a reflection of who it feels primarily responsible to. Its slow progress in improving business-friendly governance led to a public resolve at the highest levels to change this. The Prime Minister announced that he wished to raise India’s rank rapidly to 50. The fact that millions of children continue to waste, stunt or die because they lack sufficient nutritious food, clean water, sanitation and health-care however led to no such public call for introspection, reform or improvement.

What does a low ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) indicate? It means firstly that too high a proportion of India’s people (around 15 percent) are under-nourished. It means that too many children under the age of five (15 percent) are wasting, reflected in low weights for their heights. And too many are stunted (a shameful 39 percent), meaning that their bodies are adjusting to chronic low nutrition by becoming shorter for their ages. And finally it means that too many children (4.8 percent) die before reaching the age of five years, because of the fatal cocktail of too little nutritious food and highly unhealthy environments.

It is important to remember that what for the scholar is ‘under-nutrition’ is for people who live with this condition the anguish of being unable to feed oneself or one’s loved ones, of reduced physical and mental capacities, and of succumbing to infections that they would have been able to fight if they were well-nourished. Stunting and wasting means that the bodies and minds of millions of our children are being starved into feebleness. Under-five mortality means the agony of millions of mothers and fathers who are helpless as they lose their children only because of their dirt-poverty.

What does a low GHI ranking mean?

A low GHI ranking divulges that compared to other countries, governments are simply doing too little to prevent this enormous and entirely preventable suffering of millions of impoverished citizens. And the silence of the government about these continued failings can only mean that it is not stirred or shamed by this report-card, that there is still little urgency to alter the destinies of India’s poorest majorities, rural, slum-based, informal workers, women, tribal, Dalit, minority, disabled groups, aged people, single women, and above all children from all these groups.

It is not as though there has been no improvement in India in each of these parameters in recent years. In 2013, India’s position was rated as ‘alarming’; today it is slightly better at ‘serious’. In 2016, India’s GHI score was 28.5, an improvement over 36 in 2008. Since 2000, India has reduced its GHI score by a quarter. But 20 countries, including much poorer countries like Rwanda, Cambodia, and Myanmar, have all reduced their GHI scores by over 50 percent since 2000.

The problem is not that India is doing nothing to end hunger. But its improvements are much slower than even countries which are often much poorer, not self-sufficient in food production, without functional democracies, and sometimes strife-torn. India’s GHI score places it fifth from the bottom in Asia: only Afghanistan, Timor-Leste, Pakistan, and North Korea trail behind India. This surely is not illustrious company for an India that prides itself as the world’s fastest growing economy. The report estimates that if India continues to reduce hunger at the same pace, it will still be in the ‘moderate’ to ‘serious’ hunger zone in 2030.

India’s failures to reduce and end hunger, poor health and early deaths, resulting in immense suffering of millions of its people, is even more unconscionable because all of this is preventable. India has the food production, the levels of growth, the economic resources and the state capacities that it requires if it resolves to make hunger history.

Countries which have overtaken India often lack many of these advantages. India’s failures are not inevitable. They are the direct result of its public policy priorities and choices: its market fundamentalism and its refusal to invest adequately in the nutrition, education, social protection and health of its people.

Low investment on Agriculture

India’s continued trouncing in its battle against hunger stems first from its very low investments in agriculture, as a result of which India’s food producers constitute its largest ranks of the hungry and malnourished. For a sector that gives work to around 55 percent of the population, government invests less than 4 percent of public resources. Even within this small investment, the overwhelmingly large mass of the rain-fed small peasant are most neglected. India’s failure to ensure decent work to nearly nine of its ten workers trapped in informal work also explains India’s losing hunger battle.

India’s high growth is mostly jobless growth, which erodes completely the rationale for privileging business interests over those of impoverished populations. The historical inequities of gender, caste, tribe and religious minorities further aggravate those created by inequalities of wealth.

Disgraceful investment on Health

Upstream sources of India’s disgraceful hunger record include also its investment of just a little over 1 percent of GDP in public health, lower than most countries of the world; and its chronic miscarriages in securing sanitation and clean water to all its populations. Downstream we see continuing chronic under-resourcing and corrupt implementation of important food and nutrition programmes such as the ICDS and school meals, the public distribution system, pensions for older persons, single women and the disabled, and maternity benefits.

To address some of these, India passed the National Food Security Act 2013, which sought to guarantee half the calorie needs of two-thirds of the population, as well as universalise maternity benefits, young child and mother feeding, and school meals. But the union government and many states have been reluctant and neglectful in operationalising these entitlements.

All of these point to not just morally reprehensible failures of the state, but to a much deeper social and cultural malaise. This is that the lives, deprivations and suffering of the poor do not matter. In this way, the Global Hunger Index is an indictment not just of our governments, but also of middle-class India itself, holding up a mirror to how little it cares.

The author is a peace and human rights worker, writer and former civil servant

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Published: 25 Jul 2017, 11:38 AM