A migrant labourer eating the carcass of a dog, a child tugging at his dead mother’s clothes, a two-year-old child dying after spending 39 hours on a train, hungry, people collapsing during their long and tiring walk home, surviving on barely one meal a day. These are among some of the most heartwrenching images that will remain long after the pandemic ebbs and lockdown lifts. That we, as a nation, have not been able to provide our own people two square meals a day, point to our failure in the fight against hunger.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals envisions a sustainable world by 2030, free of hunger and poverty. India, like the other member nations, has been working hard to meet these goals. However, an area where it has failed miserably is Goal 2 of the SDG, which focuses on zero hunger by 2030.
As per the Global Hunger Index 2019 (GHI), India has slipped to an abysmal 102nd rank out of 117 countries, with a score of 30.3, putting the nation in the serious category. The country is ranked below its neighbours such as Nepal (73), Bangladesh (88) and Pakistan (94). What is more depressing is that India has fallen several notches from the 95th position it occupied in 2010. The only saving grace is the GHI report conceding that India’s GHI indicator value could have an outsized impact because of its large population, as compared to its neighbourhood.
The GHI incorporates four indicators to measure hunger – undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality. While undernourishment captures the state of the population as a whole, the rest of the indicators are child-specific – important considering that 40 per cent of a child’s brain development happens up to the age of six, making adequate nutrition during these growing up years even more vital.
A paper published in The Lancet, which maps neonatal and under-five mortality in India at a district level, reveals that child mortality and child growth failure indicators have improved significantly between 2000-2017, however, differences between districts have widened within states. The paper identifies child and maternal nutrition as the main risk factor, contributing to 68.2 per cent under-five deaths and 83 per cent neonatal deaths in India in 2017.
As per the report, more than 19 crore people are undernourished, while 4.9 per cent of children between the ages of 0-4, which is 56 lakh, are in the severe wasting category (extremely low weight to height ratio). Child stunting rate is also amongst the highest, at 37,9 per cent. Further, 51.4 per cent women in the reproductive age group (15-49) years are anaemic.
According to NITI Ayog’s Sustainable Development Goals Index 2019-20, the country has also fallen behind in alleviating poverty - a major reason behind hunger. Further, 25 states and Union territories have failed in their roles of addressing hunger and malnutrition.
Tackling the dichotomy
It is not as if India does not have enough food to feed its people. Where immediately after the independence India had to rely on food crops supply arriving from the United States in a ship-to-mouth existence, the country has reached self-sufficiency, today. In fact, according to the Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan, there is enough food grain to feed 8 crore migrants who do not have ration cards to avail the services, for free.
However, more than five decades after India’s green revolution propelled by MS Swaminathan, millions still go hungry. A major reason for this is that food stocks are not reaching people and, is instead, rotting in warehouses. In fact, according to the United Nations, 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted or lost in the transit. The value of food wastage is around Rs 92,000 crores annually.
While a significant part of this loss happens during harvesting or post-harvesting time, much of the food is also lost in transit or in storage facilities. Food is also wasted at the retail level due to various reasons such as expired dates, incorrect labelling or excess production. Hence, if this wastage which arises out of gaps of supply chain logistics is taken care of, the dual issues of food wastage and hunger can be addressed.
Further, India’s Public Distribution System (PDS) also suffers from myriad problems such as large scale exclusions, ration cards issued in one place not being valid in another, leakage of food grains during transportation, issues with storage which leads to grains rotting.
The good news is that state governments are taking steps to reform agri-markets and minimise restrictions on the movement of agricultural produce, an important step towards ensuring that people have access to food stock. Under the Central Government’s recommendations, a number of states have temporarily suspended the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act to enable farmers to directly sell their produce.
Early May, Madhya Pradesh amended the Madhya Pradesh Krish Upaj Mandi Act, to allow initiatives such as letting farmers sell their produce from their doorsteps and setting up agricultural marketing yards. A lot of startups are also linking farmers directly to markets, thereby avoiding middlemen who end up eating into the profits.
Reforms are also being carried out in the PDS system as well. The One Nation, One Ration card scheme, which will enable any citizen residing in any part of the country to access cheaper food grains through the PDS shops, will help provide adequate food grains to the poor.
While the GHI shows that we had not progressed much in curtailing hunger even before the pandemic, with the current scenario whatever strides the country had made in trying to meet Goal 2 of the SDG, may be nullified. However, the crisis can also be looked at as a means of ushering in policy changes that help tackle poverty, inequality and lack of access to food sources. It is also important to bring in new technology to help small farmers, and interventions targeting women that will help reduce malnutrition in the long run. These will help ensure that millions in the country do not go to sleep hungry, while food grains are rotting in their storehouses.