Conquering Hunger: The Battle for Right to Food in India

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By Annapurna and Navneet Sharma

There are so many hungry people. To them God has no other shape than bread.—Mahatma Gandhi

India has recently crossed France to claim the sixth spot of being the largest economy and has also made a deal for Rafale fighter jets worth sixty thousand crore rupees with France. With these jets we are going to protect the largest number of hungry people in the world and the largest number of farmers who commit suicide. In this article we wish to emphasise that if the present government wants to leave its imprint in history in a positive manner rather than that of the disastrous note ban, communal disharmony, lynching and shoddy defence deals, it should take a cue from the governance of the UPA-I regime which added two more rights to the list of Fundamental Rights by bringing in Right to Information and Right to Education. This government should pay heed to roti (bread) than Ram. This commentary is an advocacy for the much required Right to Food for which the people of this country have reposed their misplaced faith in the present government; the bullet train to Ayodhya cannot run on the tracks of empty stomachs of the people.

The cruciality of human rights fulfilment includes the right to food and nutrition which is imperative for the nation’s human develop-ment, raising learning and yielding capabilities, elimination of poverty, and economic and social development. Without food and access to proper and sufficient square meals it is useless to imagine a citizenry committed to the idea of a nation. Though the present dispensation may perceive Maslow’s pyramidical hierarchy model as a ‘Western’ notion, it will always remain a universal truth that without fulfilment of physiological needs people will not be in want of social, psychological and spiritual needs. Hunger and its satiation are the most primary needs for any living being.

Though we are growing with a great increase in the Gross Domestic Product from 5.46 per cent to 8.2 per cent during the last seven years, we are in an alarming situation when the Global Hunger Index report says that we are at the 100th position amongst 119 countries. Since the last few years, there has been a sharp fall in the country’s GHI position. It was 63 in 2013, 55 in 2014, 80 in 2015, 97 in 2016 and 100 in 2017 and thus making India a home to a quarter of the world’s hungry mouths. The most pertinent question is: why has the increasing GDP a negative correlation with hunger? The increasing GDP simultaneously reflects the growth in crop and food production. The policy- makers need to reflect that when there was an efficient growth in crop and domestic production why did we still have starving stomachs and deaths? Why did the food produced not reach the plates of the hungry? The flawed public distribution system is a reflection of the poor governance of the ‘welfare’ state.

In our country, one in five children has a low weight-to-height ratio, 14.5 per cent of children are malnourished and stunting and wasting are at a whopping 38.4 and 21 per cent respectively and the mortality rate below the age of five is 4.8 per cent. Since the last 25 years, there is no substantial improvement in the child wasting rate in India. According to the GHI report, even countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh, which have much lesser GDP and robust economy to boast of, are doing better than us in their children’s health and growth. The Government of India may claim that they have made this country polio and small pox free but have enslaved the nation’s children to malnutrition and starvation deaths.

Failing to control hunger deaths, whom will we protect with the newly acquired defence supremacy? Maybe it is a matter of great shame that the number of deaths due to starvation has reached 56 in the regime of the Prime Minister who proudly exudes his 56 inches chest. According to Rajnath Singh, the Right to Food advocacy is a political gimmick in a hurry and one amongst the other populist measures taken by the then government to lure the masses ahead of elections but today after the BJP has almost completed a term, there still remains a void. Having spent more than 5000 crores of rupees in rallies and advertisements, the government could not pay the much needed concern to the people dying of lack of food. Since 2015, a reported number of 56 people have died of starvation, of which 42 have died during the last one year. The starvation deaths are reported from Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh (16 each) and Odisha (10). In Odisha, three Dalits died of hunger after their ration cards were deleted from the public distribution system for not being linked to Aadhar and hence they were denied their quota of subsidised ration for the last six months. It is needless to mention that these States are governed by the party or its allies which also holds the reins at the Centre. The ball cannot be passed as both the goal-posts belong to the same party.

Another soul-stirring story comes from Delhi, the second wealthiest State of the country, where three girls below 10 years of age died of starvation at a distance of less than 30 minutes from the CM and PM’s office, while the nation celebrated the ‘Nutrition Month’ in September 2018. Delhi has been a migration capital since long. Thousands of people come here after they are displaced by natural calamities like drought, floods, crop failure; seeking employment and food security. But where ignorance prevails right in the Capital, what can one imagine about the far-flung areas of the country where the government policies have yet not reached! Be it rural or urban, a poor falls victim to poor defunct public food distribution system and work programmes, the dwindling food supplies make them survive on poisonous roots. How can one die of hunger in a Capital where there are a number of langars, sacred places, countless number of food activists, food banks are working and also anganwadis are there which are responsible for the availability of food to the children below the age of six and mothers.

The rattle of increased Minimum Support Price (MSP) has been conveyed to the farmers ahead of elections in three agrarian States, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Does the new MSP actually cover the actual cost incurred in crop production? Have the variable costs in different States been worked out? If the cost of diesel alone is taken into consideration, it is different for each State. A small sample size or a weighted average cannot be the basis of fixing the MSP. The increased inflation in the last three years can be compared with the 12 per cent growth rate in the MSP during the UPA years to that of only five per cent during the last three years (2015-18). The sharp price fall in some crops during the last two years of record harvest and the rise in the input price accounts for more misery at the farmers’ end. Whatever MSP is fixed, the wholesale price of the produce remains lower than the MSP. The State procurement mechanism does not reach a majority of the farmers. Moreover, what does it entail to have an MSP when the government denies further purchase of crops by citing the reason that its silos are full and even does not have space for cover and plinth kind of storage? Every single step from production to consumption has a series of policies and none is capable of increasing the yield, rather those involved in the implemen-tation of the policies are the real people benefiting from these. The grain sold on subsidised rates for the poor does not reach them. Despite this, people die of hunger as they are compelled to eat mango kernels while rotten grain stocks are drowned in the sea. Till the recent past the Government of India had been feeding the poor of other countries with a subsidised export of nearly 28 million tonnes at almost BPL rates. This grain could have benefited double the number of people that come under schemes like Sampoorna Grameen Rozgaar Yojana, Mid Day Meal scheme, Annapurna etcetera.

With an advanced estimate of increased production (277.49 mn tonnes 2017-18) of major food crops, we have exceeded the earlier production (275.11 mn tonnes 2016-17) and the Ministry of Agriculture says that this year there is a record foodgrain production, but can we assure our poor hungry people at least a one-time meal?

Despite a rapidly growing economy there are hundreds of million people bound to suffer the tragedies of malnutrition and travesty of public welfare schemes. The Right to Education could be a success of whatsoever kind because the government assured the poor at least one wholesome meal for children in the mid-day meal scheme. The UNDP says that almost 40 per cent of foodgrains is wasted in transit, damaged and spoilt in one way or the other in India. The total amount of food wasted in India in a year is valued at Rs 58,000 crores. Owing to poor distribution and inadequate storage facilities, about 21 million tonnes of wheat, which almost equals the total production of a country like Australia, is wasted in India. In 2016-17, a damage of 8679 tonnes of foodgrains was reported, with Maharashtra topping the list of States with 7963 tonnes. Various reasons for damage of foodgrains include pest attacks, leakages in godowns, procurement of poor quality stocks, exposure to rains, floods, and negligence on the part of the people concerned. On the one hand we witness death of our farmers because of erratic policies and at the same time we see people dying of hunger amidst all the piles of foodgrains being disposed off.

Conclusion

It is in utter disregard to the idea of humanity and welfare state that seventy per cent of the country’s population is employed in agriculture and more than thirty per cent of its population goes hungry. The quirkiness and vagaries of the people at the helm is reflected in the statements such as, ‘to seek loan waivers is fashionable these days’ or ‘poor people don’t have anything to eat because they spend lavishly on marriages, alcohol and smart phones’. The Government of India allocates more money to build a Patel Statue and to organise Kumbh Mela than in steps to eradicate food insecurities and hunger. The poor and poverty are reduced to statistics and policy-makers dig their heads either in sand to believe that it is a non-issue and chant slogans like ‘Bhukhmari Bharat chhodo’ (Hunger — Leave India) (sic) to believe that it is a Godly or natural curse and which will leave this country on its own or at God’s will only. The planning and strategy to tackle hunger are lack lustre in comparison to even what goes on in designing the Prime Minister’s suit with his name. The present dispensation finds it comfor-table and convenient to believe that roti (bread) is less important than Ram in contradiction to human understanding that once one gets roti he discovers Ram on his own provided the roti is assured by the much necessary right to food.

Source:  Mainstream

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