October 11, 2010, was a day of glory, hope and shame for India. It was a day India touched — and would soon top — its best-ever medals tally at the Commonwealth Games. It was a day the money poured over 2010 into India by foreign institutional investors was set to touch a record R100,000 crore (or $21 billion). It was a day India was ranked 67 of 84 countries in a global hunger index.
The medals harvest cheered India like nothing else. New sporting heroes, particularly women, emerged from every corner of emerging India. We stopped ranting against that symbol of old India, Suresh Kalmadi, and started raving about the new, like Deepika Mahato, gold medallist in archery and daughter of a Ranchi auto driver. We were right in celebrating the few hundred sportsmen and women who made the long journey from backwater to big stage, from penury to plenty. They had new stories for us, and we wanted to hear them, to be inspired, to feel good.
But there are older stories that we do not like to hear. India’s latest hunger ranking, delivered by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington D.C., did not make it to television news. In the newspapers, it was buried, just another bad news story in a nation that, increasingly, does not like to hear such news.
The IFPRI’s Global Hunger index ranks India in the ‘alarming’ group (the categories: moderate, serious, alarming and extremely alarming), below many failed States ruled by tyrants and despots. The ranking considers the number of children under five who are underweight, malnourished or wind up dead, particularly girls.
In Asia, everyone, except Bangladesh, which is just one rank below India, is doing better. China is at number nine, Pakistan at 59, Nepal at 56. India is bested by a host of tottering States, including Guinea-Bissau, Togo, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
Hunger is particularly inconvenient bad news. Unlike an ill-prepared Games pulled together at the last minute, there are no last-minute fixes.
India’s approach to hunger has been to throw a programme at every failing. So, the world’s largest programme for nutritional, health and school needs of children under six, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which runs 1.4 million centres nationwide with a budget of R7,806 crore for 2020-11. So, the world’s biggest cooked-meal programme, covering 119 million children in government schools up to class VIII with a budget of R9,440 crore. So, the world’s largest public distribution system (PDS) for subsidised food, with a budget of R55,578 crore. So, the world’s biggest cash-for-work programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), with a budget of R40,100 crore. Hunger in India is definitely not a problem of resources.
Hunger persists despite spectacular economic expansion, and it is disproportionate to rising incomes. With per capita income crossing $1,000, India is now considered a middle-income country.
What, then, is the problem?
As this paper, through its ‘Tracking Hunger’ series (www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger) has often reported, behind every story of hunger and malnutrition is a collective national apathy towards the poor, an unreformed, struggling agriculture sector, the low status of women and collapsing administration.
In addressing hunger, the biggest question is the same that arose before and during the Games in Delhi: who’s in charge? That’s the question Lant Pritchett, old India hand and professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, poses when he travels across the nation.
He rarely gets a convincing answer. “India’s basic systems are badly, badly broken,” he told me. Evidence abounds in leaky multibillion-dollar, anti-hunger programmes: a quarter of the money spent on mid-day meals never reaches the poor, a third in the NREGA and more than half on the PDS. The failures of the PDS are especially acute. Only 36 per cent of its poor have below-poverty-line (BPL) cards to access cheap food. Nearly 60 per cent of these cards are with people who are not officially poor.
Can this be fixed? Universalise the PDS, says the left. Target it more sharply and pay the poor directly, says the free-marketers. There is an unsexy, boring idea: it’s called reform. For instance, a PDS dealer has to go through an average of 18 levels to get grain.
Unlike the failed States ranked above India in the global hunger index, the government has not lost control — yet. Yet, there is no big-bang fix, just a hard slog ahead.
N.C. Saxena, member of India’s influential National Advisory Council, believes most Indian states have lost the capacity for reform on their own. “That pressure to reform can come only from the government of India,” he said. Right now, there is no such pressure.
As with the run-up to the Games, the government knows the problem. Unlike the Games, it shows no urgency or inclination to intervene, to set deadlines and targets, to pick programmes that need to be reformed, to — most importantly — put more people, administrators and politicians, in charge of national crises like hunger and malnutrition.
India’s new stars could lend a hand. A major reason for India’s high child malnutrition is the low status of women. They still eat last and least during pregnancy. As women’s discus throw gold medallist Krishna Poonia, a Jat, noted: “Our community is known more for female foeticide… but so many Jat women have won medals; it proves what we can do — if we get the opportunity.”
India’s undiscovered Poonias must have these chances, sooner than later, or we may be doomed to our hunger rankings — and everlasting shame.