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India

India Grows More Food Than It Needs, Yet Hunger Persists

A right not to starve is as basic a fundamental human right as there can be.

Dumping discarded vegetables in Mumbai, India
Dumping discarded vegetables in Mumbai, India
Aditi Goyal

"After a prolonged decline, world hunger appears to be on the rise again", claims a report titled ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (2017)" by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Nowhere is this more true than in India, which is home to 191 million undernourished people, the most in any country. While this may seem like a fantastic claim in the context of the fastest-growing economy in the world, here are some statistics from the report:

— 14.5% of the Indian population is under-nourished;

— 47.5 million Indian children under five years of age are stunted — again, the most in any country in the world;

— 51.4% of Indian women of reproductive age (15-49 years) suffer from anemia;

— 64.9% of Indian women (the highest proportion in the world) rely exclusively on breastfeeding for feeding infants between 0-5 months of age.

These numbers certainly tell a story — but numbers are, by definition, abstract. Putting a face to this story may help — or faces, in this case. Not long ago, three sisters (Mansi, 8, Shikha, 4 and Parul, 2) in Delhi's Mandawali area died of starvation. Amita Saxena, the medical superintendent of Lal Bahadur Shastri Hospital, told NDTV that "there was not a speck found in the stomach, bladder and rectum of the children ... it looked like they had not eaten for eight or nine days."

The Right to Food is a basic human right.

This is not an isolated incident — in October, 11-year old Santoshi, in Jharkhand, died of starvation when her mother's ration card was canceled after she failed to link it to the Aadhaar identity card. In another recent occurrence, Rajendra Birhor, a 40-year-old tribal man in Jharkhand died of starvation, as his family did not have a ration card. His death followed that of Chintamani Malhar, another 40-year-old in the same district who had died of starvation a couple of weeks earlier.

Apart from hunger, there is another common thread that runs through all these deaths — the claims of authorities that the deaths were caused due to "illness."

Why is this happening in a country which supposedly produces more food than it needs? According to the World Economic Forum, India needs approximately 230 million tons of food per year to feed its population — and India's food grain output in 2016-2017 was a record 273.3 million tons.

Rats may be one answer. Sharad Pawar, former union agriculture minister, once told Parliament that nearly 40% of the value of annual production of food in India is wasted, with crops left to rot in the sun without storage or transportation, or eaten by insects and rats.

According to an RTI reply given by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution, 61,824 tons of grains were damaged in the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India between 2011-12 and 2016-17, enough to feed an estimated 800,000 people for an entire year.

Feeding children in India — Photo: tyaqakk

The Indian government is reportedly trying to resolve these issues through newer distribution strategies, use of technology, improvement of cold chain facilities and tie-ups with private players. However, these measures, even if implemented, would still not be sufficient to put food in the mouths of Santoshi, Parul, Shikha and Mansi, for the issue runs deeper than a lack of infrastructural facilities.

In India, infrastructural constraints aside, there does exist a basic framework to ensure that poor families are provided with a minimum quantity of food. Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, poor families are guaranteed five kilograms of food grains per person per month, at heavily subsidized rates. The Act reportedly covers 75% and 50% of India's rural and urban populations respectively, and yet, the Santoshis and Paruls of India continue to fall through the cracks.

The reason is simple — to avail the benefits of the National Food Security Act, families are required to hold ration cards, and now, the Aadhaar has further exacerbated the issue. Authorities at the ground level insist that these ration cards must be linked to Aadhaar, despite the fact that the constitutional validity of Aadhaar is hanging in balance — the verdict in the matter has been reserved by the Supreme Court.

The Santoshis and Paruls of India continue to fall through the cracks.

The fundamental question here is that access to something as basic as food should not be governed by the availability of documentation such as an Aadhar card. Right to Food is a basic human right, and in India, is enshrined as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees right to life and liberty. The right to life as referred to under Article 21 has been interpreted to mean a right to live with dignity and not mere animal existence and that implies ensuring access to food and not just availability of food.

As French philosopher Simone Weil once said, "It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance." It is high time that the fastest growing economy in the world woke up to that obligation.

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