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Hunger isn’t about biology. It’s about politics

Shah Alam Khan writes: In the absence of an organised food security net and political commitment, India is being crippled by the challenge of pervasive hunger and malnourishment

Written by Shah Alam Khan |
Updated: November 13, 2021 6:43:02 am
The soul of hunger lies in the evil of the ruling class. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

A busy day ended and I started walking towards my car in the hospital parking lot. With the setting sun in my eyes, I saw this seven- or eight-year-old boy standing at the hospital entrance speaking to his younger sister. Their father and an old lady (probably their grandmother) sat on their haunches nearby. The little boy had returned after visiting his ailing mother, who was admitted in our hospital. The visit of the young boy had coincided with lunch being served to admitted patients. This stroke of luck had given him a chance of a lifetime. It was now his turn to describe the menu to his younger sister.

“There was dal. There was roti. There was dahi….” He spoke like a lover who has just won a duel. His sister listened in awe. Her half-open mouth and shining eyes had an element of surprise. “What else was there?” she asked nervously. Her golden-brown hair, a sign of malnutrition, added misery to her innocent face.

“And there was achaar,” he continued with a snick of the tongue. Every food item he mentioned widened the little girl’s eyes.

I kept listening to them. The click of his tongue, the warmth of the rotis, the precise salt in the dal — good food had turned him into a master storyteller. Her sister’s face was slowly falling apart, her excitement turning into anxiety. Her sparse eyebrows were raised like parentheses. She was beginning to realise what she had missed. The storyteller continued. By now, darkness had engulfed his face. His brittle voice followed me into the car park. I drove into the darkness promising myself to quickly forget his sister’s miserable face and the meagre food he described. I dreamt of them that night.

A few months after this incident, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report ranked India at 101 out of a total of 116 countries. Despite my resistance, the two children returned to haunt me. Very unceremoniously, we were again labelled the republic of hungry citizens. To add misery to this horrible truth is the fact that in the crop year 2019-20 (July-June), the country’s foodgrain output was at a record 297.5 million tones. Hunger in India is thus a classic case of the crisis of capitalism, which Karl Marx, the best food theorist I know, had once warned us against.

In his book, Hunger: A Modern History, James Vernon has described hunger as a “timeless and inescapable biological condition”. Wrong. Hunger has always been political. The soul of hunger lies in the evil of the ruling class. The biology of hunger resides inside the coffers of the state and its cronies. In a 2008 paper, Hunger in the Contemporary World, Amartya Sen enumerated the interdependence of food deprivation and hunger on multiple factors. According to him, hunger involves much more than food. Different interconnections of food or lack of it are well-being of economic sectors, women’s education, public activism and social commitment, employment, military expenditure, political incentives and government policies, people’s income and inter-family food distribution rules. The complex diversity of these interconnections is what makes India vulnerable to pervasive hunger.

Having said this, it is interesting to note that in the current GHI, India has fared worse than neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. These are countries with a similar subset of factors and “food interconnections” as ours. It won’t be wrong to, therefore, conclude that we need to evaluate our responses in the fight against hunger in the backdrop of what these nations did right in standing up to the menace of hunger.

In the last decade or so, Bangladesh has shown significant progress on many socio-economic parameters. Infant mortality rate (IMR), which is considered to be one of the best indicators of overall health of the society, is 23.6 per thousand live births for Bangladesh as against India’s IMR of 28.7 per thousand live births. Female literacy in Bangladesh is 72 per cent, higher than that of India at 66 per cent. There is thus no surprise that they have done fairly well in the GHI. A study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on food security post the Covid-19 crisis in Bangladesh concluded that though the lockdown brought significant food insecurity, it quickly went back to the pre-pandemic levels with extensive government involvement. A similar conclusion for India will need a leap of imagination.

On the day that the GHI released its rankings, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country’s goal under the Aatmanirbhar Bharat campaign was to emerge as the most powerful military in the world. However, our expenditure on health over the last five years has either remained static or declined. Health is the single most crucial “interconnection of food”. Political will and commitment come a close second. In the absence of an organised food security net, particularly in urban India, our rank in the GHI will fall further.

India is a signatory to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). We need to achieve these 13 targets and 28 indicators by 2030. The SDG target 2.1 enumerates that by 2030 we need to end hunger and ensure access of all people, in particular the poor and vulnerable, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round. In 2020, we were ranked 94 (out of 107 countries) in the GHI. Our deterioration in 2021 is a grim reminder of our potential inability to achieve the SDG 2.1 target unless we do something drastically different; something more than committing ourselves to war, and a vulgar display of power. Unless that happens, we, the republic of hungry people, shall continue to find truth in what Charlotte Bronte, had written in Shirley, the Tale:

“Take the matter as you find it: ask no questions; utter no remonstrances: it is your best wisdom. You expected bread, and you have got a stone; break your teeth on it, and don’t shriek because the nerves are martyrised: do not doubt that your mental stomach — if you have such a thing — is strong as an ostrich’s — the stone will digest.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 12, 2021 under the title ‘The hunger around us’. The writer is with the department of orthopaedics, AIIMS, New Delhi. Views are personal

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