Hunger in India — A National Shame

Posted on August 2, 2010 in Society

By Trishla Gupta:

‘10,688 lakh tonnes of food grains were found damaged in FCI depots, enough to feed over six lakh people for over 10 years.’

This was the first of many reports that I read about the food grain rotting in different FCI godowns across the country. My first reaction was of shock but slowly this sickening sensation started settling in. In a country where small children crying for a bite of food is a daily site, where most people are not able to eat proper food even once a day; in that country food worth nearly Rs 60,000 crore was being destroyed every year due to poor and insufficient storage facilities!! And to add insult to injury, the government spends about Rs 2.6 crore of the tax payers’ money to get rid of food grain that has rotted during storage.

What do you say to this? Sickened and frustrated at the thought of millions dying due to the callousness of a few, I felt this urgent urge to go to the elected few and ask them if they ever had to stay hungry even for a day? If they ever faced a situation where they felt like eating something or buying something but were helpless to do so because they could’nt afford it? I know that I might sound silly asking questions whose answers are so obvious. Even I came to my senses very soon and realized that the only way I could get answers was by knowing the actual condition of the impoverished in this country, and then trying to look for solutions to what could be done.

So first things first-

How big is the hunger problem in India?

India is failing its rural poor with 230 million people being undernourished – the highest for any country in the world. Malnutrition accounts for nearly 50% of child deaths in India .According to the latest report on the state of food insecurity in rural India, more than 1.5 million children are at risk of becoming malnourished because of rising global food prices. The United Nations World Food Programme report points more than 27% of the world’s undernourished population lives in India while 43% of children (under 5 years) in the country are underweight. The figure is among the highest in the world. The proportion of stunted children (under-5) at 48% is again among the highest in the world. Every second child in the country is stunted, according to the health ministry’s figures.
Shocking isn’t it? But where does the cause lie?

The failure does not lie in any operational inability to produce more food, but a far reaching failure to make the poor of the country able to afford enough food. Firstly let’s talk about the food policy, and in particular food prices policy. Why is it the case that the large expenditure on food subsidy in India does not achieve more in reducing undernourishment? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the subsidy is mainly geared to keep food prices high for the sellers of food – farmers in general — rather than to make food prices low for the buyers of food. Secondly, the ambitious Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) is failing. Apart from failing to serve the intended goal of reduction of food subsidies, the TPDS also is leading to greater food insecurity for large sections of the poor and the near-poor. These targeting errors arise due to imperfect information, inexact measurement of household characteristics, corruption and inefficiency. Another problem, I feel, of the TPDS is the issue of quantity of grain that a household is entitled to. The TPDS initially restricted the allotments to BPL households to 10 kg per month. For a family of five, this amounted to 2 kg per capita. Using the ICMR recommended norm of 330 grams per day, the requirement per person per month would be 11 kg and that for a family of five would be 55 kg. Thirdly and most importantly the governments apathy. It is shameful that in a country where so many people go hungry it is left to the media and other agencies to highlight the pathetic state of affairs.

What, then, should we do, indeed what can we do? People have to go hungry if they do not have the means to buy enough food. Hunger is primarily a problem of general poverty, and thus overall economic growth and its distributional pattern cannot but be important in solving the hunger problem. It is particularly critical to pay attention to employment opportunities, other ways of acquiring economic means, and also food prices, which influence people’s ability to buy food, and thus affect the food entitlement they effectively enjoy. The public distribution system must be strengthened and it must be ensured that the food the government sets aside for BPL families is distributed to them through effective agencies. We must increase allocation through PDS, give food grain through the NREGA, offload the excess stock in the market, but not feed it to the rats.

Given our democratic system, nothing is as important as clear-headed public discussions of the causes of deprivation and the possibility of successful public intervention. Public action includes not only what is done for the public by the state, but also what is done by the public for itself. It includes what people can do by demanding remedial action and through making governments accountable. The lives and well-being of hundreds of millions of people will depend on the extent to which our public discussion can be broadened and be made more informed. I hope we manage to have some impact.

Youth Ki Awaaz is helping the World Food Program in the fight against hunger by raising awareness and attracting proactive bloggers from around the globe. Hunger will be eradicated, if we fight against it together. To know more about WFP visit and