The Politics of Hunger


The poverty estimate in India is solely based on the calorie intake of food. It is defined as consumption of 2100 calories per day for urban population and 2400 calories per day for rural population. This is later converted to monetary terms to get a more specific understanding of what poverty entails. The calorie consumption of a person determines the position they are in with respect to the poverty line.

Even though the World Bank defines poverty as “pronounced deprivation of well being”, the Indian perspective of poverty limits it only to its nutritional nature. There is no mention about the deprivation of educational, leisure or health facilities. This completely dehumanizes poverty and seems to be a rather reductive approach.

Even though this view of looking at poverty in India is flawed, the historical baggage it carries cannot be ignored. Millions in India even today battle with endemic hunger and lack of access to food. The World Food Summit (1996) defined food security as “access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.” Yet, even after 20 years of interventions, nearly half of the children under the age of 5 are malnourished. Stunted growth is one of the indicators of undernourishment, but when stunted growth becomes the average rate, seen in more than half of the population, it becomes normalized.

The Global Hunger Index, estimated by the International Food Policy Research Institute, has ranked India at the 97th place globally in combating hunger. India’s rate of malnutrition is now worse than sub-Saharan Africa, with over 43.5% of the children under the age of five being underweight. Despite being one of the fastest developing economies in the world, India is yet to reach the average developing country score on the Global Hunger Index. India ranks lower than Sudan, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Even the war torn Iran provides more food security to its children than India does.

In a democratic country like India, why aren’t there more discussions about its famished population?

India has never considered health as a basic human right, especially for its poor and backward classes.

The reality is that a country that is desperate to win the race to become a superpower is unwilling to commit to feed its own population.

The lack of political will to feed the ones suffering from chronic hunger is manifested in the government’s decision to continue to raise the Below Poverty Line. This serves a dual purpose. Firstly, the government brushes off its responsibility of providing affordable food grains to those who by medical standards needed them. Secondly, the statistics then show that the government has been successful in combating the growing hunger among its population, that it has provided its people with food. Even though the government has promised a new security bill, its progress has been slow and riddled with too many political blockages.

With millions dying of hunger on one hand and millions of tonnes of food grains rotting in the FCI godowns on the other, the politics of hunger cannot be denied. The previous as well as the current government have constantly tried to undermine the poor distribution of food grains. The answer to all of this according to the government, is to use technology in the agricultural sector. But what good can technology do when the problem is a poor food distribution system? The government would rather let the food grains rot than feed the hungry for free. This capitalist mindset is a red flag for the supposedly welfare state that the Indian government stands for. Everything cannot be quantified in monetary terms when your own population is dying because of hunger.

India doesn’t have a food shortage, it is a food grain surplus country, so where do the excess food grains go and why aren’t they utilized in feeding the famished?

There is even a caste angle to this issue. India might have an alarming health crisis on its hands but its hierarchical caste system also means that upper castes are hermetically sealed off from the problem. In a 2011 study published in the economic and political weekly, underweight rates are 53% higher for Dalit children as compared to Hindu upper castes.

The figure is even higher for Adivasis at 69%. Shudra children have underweight rates 35% higher than upper caste groups – better than Dalits and Adivasis but still significantly worse than India’s elites. It isn’t surprising that India’s alarming hunger crisis goes unreported as these oppressed classes aren’t given a voice in the political process. The media too decided to ignore this issue since almost all spheres of the Indian political, social and economic decision making classes are over-represented by the upper castes.

The immense need for more policy driven interventions needs to be addressed. There needs to be more media and political awareness regarding the shocking figures regarding the deaths of the millions of famished children and. The political and social elites need to start a campaign regarding the universal entitlement of food grains through the public distribution system. The government needs to take a serious look at the politics of hunger and hunger as the violation of a basic human right. There needs to be better procurement, storage and distribution of food grains to combat the mass level starvation. This can be done only via the public distribution system that is accessible to all. As a rapidly developing country, it is high time that we look inward to our famished population that can’t even afford a single meal per day.

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