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As the economy grows, so too does hunger

By Devinder Sharma

If successive governments had devoted just a fraction of the effort that has gone into propping up trade and industry into fighting hunger and malnutrition, India would not be ranked a dismal 66th in the 2008 Global Hunger Index

Poverty and Hunger

Hunger is keeping pace with economic growth. At a time when the economy is growing at an average of 7 to 8%, hunger too is on the rise.  

The National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO’s) 2006-07 report shows the stark truth. The correlation between hunger and economic growth is robustly positive -- the greater the economic growth, the greater the number of people going to bed hungry. This challenges the widely held view that economic growth pulls the poor out of poverty and hunger.  

The disturbing report, which should have shocked the nation and offered lessons for the global economic community, has been conveniently pushed under the carpet. While all efforts are aimed at minimising the impact of the financial meltdown, this damning indictment of the country’s failure to feed its population is receiving little attention. It is obvious that the definition of ‘welfare state’, which India’s founding fathers wanted the country to adhere to, is now being interpreted to mean only corporate welfare.  

The poor and hungry have simply disappeared off the economic radar screens. Except for setting up a panel on nutrition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is busy battling the economic downturn. Like his predecessors, barely a day passes when he is not seen hobnobbing with the industrialists. If successive governments had devoted just a fraction of the effort that has gone into propping up trade and industry into fighting hunger and malnutrition, India would not be showing such a dismal ranking in the 2008 Global Hunger Index -- a shameful 66th from among 88 hungry countries, much below sub-Saharan Africa.  

Although the Global Hunger Index, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), puts the number of hungry in India at 200 million -- the largest population of hungry in the world -- this is a gross underestimation. The National Commission on Enterprise in Unorganised Sector had earlier computed that 837 million people spend a paltry Rs 20 (less than 50 cents) a day. Surely Rs 20 a day cannot buy a person two square meals! In other words, 77% of the country’s population is living on the edge, somehow managing to survive.  

Another alarming aspect is that since economic liberalisation was launched in 1991, NSSO tells us that cereal consumption has steadily declined, with no corresponding increase in the intake of more nutritious eggs, vegetables, fruits and milk. That means hunger is now more widespread and better entrenched than ever. So far the belief has been that with changing food habits people have moved from cereals to nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and milk. This assumption does not hold good anymore.  

The decline in cereal consumption follows a steady pattern, more or less, in both rural and urban areas; of course it’s much faster in rural areas. Per capita cereal consumption per month in rural areas across the country fell from 13.4 kg in 1993-94 to 11.7 kg in 2006-07. The decline was sharper between 2004 and 2007 when, in just three years, cereal consumption fell from 12.1 kg to 11.7 kg. In urban centres, the decline was from 10.6 kg in 1993-94 to 9.6 kg in 2006-07. In a largely vegetarian society, cereal constitutes the single most important source of nutrition.  

But this is still not the real picture. The NSSO survey does not cover the period 2007-08 when the world faced an unprecedented rise on global food prices. In any case, average household expenditure on food may show an increasing trend but this does not translate into greater food consumption. It only means that food prices have gone up and that the poor find it more difficult to fill their bellies. The recent price rise made things harder for the poor. Cereal consumption is expected to fall still further in 2007-08. The impact this could have on the poor and hungry can well be imagined.    

India is fast sinking into a quagmire of deprivation and despair. Ignoring the premise that economic growth does not automatically translate into human development, successive prime ministers have been repeatedly asserting that opening up markets is the key to attracting foreign investments and accelerating growth. Sadly, in the absence of any plausible understanding of the politico-economic system that a country like India must follow, and with our sights firmly fixed on treating GDP as the benchmark of economic policy, we are going down a path that’s laden with acute poverty and chronic malnutrition. 

Isn’t it strange that such widespread and extreme inhuman conditions are not even remotely reflected in the country’s growth projections? That means there is something terribly wrong with the way economic growth is computed. The net economic worth of 36 billionaires constitutes one-third of India’s GDP, conveniently hiding the poverty and squalor in which 837 million Indians live. Even if we were to accept the Global Hunger Index compilation, the faces of 200 million hungry people remain hidden under the growth projections. They are the real face of India.  

I have often quoted the former finance minister of Pakistan and author of the UNDP’s Human Development Report, the late Mahbub-ul-Haq, who once remarked: “We were wrongly taught that we should take care of GDP and it will automatically take care of poverty. Let us reverse it. We need to take care of poverty and it will automatically take care of GDP.” As Pakistan’s finance minister in the 1960s, he was able to generate a GDP growth rate of 7%. “And still people voted us out,” he told me once, adding, “It was a rude awakening for me. I realised that economic growth is no indicator of human development.”   

Is there a way out, in the short-term? Yes there is, provided what the BJP and the Congress are promising in the ensuing state assembly elections in Chhattisgarh becomes the official agenda. The Congress Party has promised to provide rice at Rs 2 per kg, and the BJP, wanting to outdo the Congress, has come up with a pledge to provide the staple food at Re 1 for 7.8 lakh Antyodaya families, and at Rs 2 for the 34 lakh other identified poor. This scheme, whatever the financial implications, must be expanded to cover the entire country. The hungry need food now, not the promise of a “trickle-down” through economic growth.  

InfoChange News & Features, November 2008