Economy grows, and so does hunger

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

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

The disturbing report, which should have shocked the nation, and has lessons for the global economic community, has been very conveniently pushed under the carpet. While all efforts are aimed at minimising the impact of the financial meltdown, the damming indictment of the state’s failure in feeding its population receives scant attention. It is therefore quite obvious that the definition of a welfare state, which India’s founding forefathers had wanted the country to adhere to, is now being interpreted to mean only corporate welfare.

The poor and hungry have simply disappeared from the economic radar screen. Except for setting up a panel on nutrition, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is busy battling the economic turndown. Like his predecessors, there is hardly a day when he is not hobnobbing with the industrialists. If only successive governments had devoted a fraction of the effort that has gone into propping up trade and industry, into fighting hunger and malnutrition, India’s dismal ranking in the 2008 Global Hunger Index – a shameful 66th among the 88 hungry countries, much below Sub-Saharan Africa – would have left something to cheer about.

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 simply a gross underestimation. The National Commission on Enterprise in Unorganised Sector on the other hand 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 two square meals. In other words, 77 per cent of the country’s population is living on the edge, and somehow manages to survive.

What makes the alarming situation still worse is that ever since economic liberalisation was launched in 1991, the NSSO tells us that cereal consumption has been on a steady decline, with no corresponding increase in the intake of more nutritious eggs, vegetables, fruits and milk. It means hunger has been on a rise and is now more widespread and well-entrenched. So far the feeling was that with the changing food habits, people have shifted from cereals to nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and milk. This assumption too does not hold true anymore.

The decline in cereal consumption has more or less followed a steady pattern in the rural and urban areas, of course much faster in the rural areas. Per capita cereal consumption per month in the rural areas across the country has fallen from 13.4 kg in 1993-94 to 11.7 kg in 2006-07. The decline has been sharper between the period 2004 and 2007 when just in three years, cereals consumption fell from 12.1 kg to 11.7 kg. In the urban centres the decline was from 10.6 kg in 1993-94 to 9.6 kg in 2006-07. In a largely vegetarian society, cereals constitute the single important source of nutrition and therefore its importance in the Indian context is well established.

This is still not the real picture. The NSSO survey des not cover the period 2007-08 when the world was faced with an unprecedented rise on global food prices. In any case, the average household expenditure on food shows an increasing trend, but does not translate into more food consumption. It only means food prices have been on an upswing, and the poor are finding it difficult to fill their bellies. The recent price rise had made it still more difficult for the poor to be well fed. Cereal consumption therefore is expected to fall still further in 2007-08, and the impact it must have had on the poor and hungry can be well imagined.

It is well known that 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 the opening up of the markets is the key to attract 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 vision fixed on treating GDP as the benchmark of economic policy, we are harping on a path which is laden with acute poverty and chronic malnutrition.

Strange isn’t it that such widespread and extreme inhuman conditions are not even remotely reflected in the growth projections. It 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, and very conveniently hides the acute poverty and squalor in which 837 million Indians live in. Even if we were to accept the Global Hunger Index compilation, the face of 200 million hungry remains camouflaged under the growth projections. Growth projections hide the real face of India — the global hotspot of hunger.

I have often quoted the former Finance Minister of Pakistan and the author of the UNDP’s Human Development Report, the late Mahbub-ul-Haq, who had 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 seven per cent. “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.”

Well, is there a way out in the short term? Yes, there is, provided what the BJP and the Congress party promised at the time of state assembly elections in Chhatisgarh becomes the official agenda. The Congress party had promised to provide rice at Rs 2 per kilo and the BJP wanting to outdo 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. The BJP has come back to power, and many believe that it is because of their promise for making available cheaper rice. This scheme, whatever be the financial implications, must be expanded to cover the entire country. The hungry immediately need food and not the promise of a trickle down through economic growth. #

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