The battle over mid-day meals to school children in Assam (pitting cooks and helpers against NGOs) and the underlying politics over providing poor households with heavily subsidized foodgrains obscure a vital failure. It is that the country as a whole, notwithstanding the goal of growing to a $5 trillion economy, is failing badly on hunger. And this failure spans the range from starvation and chronic hunger to under-nutrition/malnutrition, which are related problems but not exactly the same. According to Global Hunger Index for 2019, India has been ranked 102 out of 117 countries in terms of severity of hunger.
This is in line with earlier studies like Global Food Security Index, 2018 and National Health Survey, 2017. Some alarming figures thrown up in these studies indicate the dimensions of the challenge facing this country — that almost 24% or one-fourth of the world’s malnourished people live in India alone; 4,500 children die every day in India due to hunger-related causes; and 19 crore people in India go to sleep on empty stomach every night. The war against hunger and malnutrition, as part of the larger war against poverty, has been going on in this country for years, in the course of which schemes like National Food Security Act, Antyodaya Anna Yojana, Mid-Day Meal and Poshan Abhiyan are being implemented. Set to overtake China and become the most populous nation by 2027, this is a war India must fight every day with steely resolve. Yet the focus tends to get dissipated due to politics and sheer ad-hocism. It is also a war that threatens to get complicated soon due to global climate change.
The Global Hunger Report, 2019 warns that extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, floods, storms and fires are severely impacting crop yields — thereby causing income loss to farmers on one hand, while on the other hand raising food prices which reduce poor people’s access to food and make them weaker and more disease-prone. When the Government of India in 2013 got the National Food Security Act enacted by Parliament, it was hailed as a major step towards food security. But the NFSA focus has remained limited primarily to foodgrains which are carbohydrate-rich, while other nutritional needs remain unmet. Lest we forget, it is one thing to simply fill bellies with a staple foodgrain like rice or wheat, and another (far more difficult) thing to provide the full complement of essential nutrients to prevent wasting and stunting of bodies.
There are serious misgivings whether it is sufficient to add nutrients like vitamins, minerals and other vital supplements to a staple like wheat flour, instead of thinking bigger about providing balanced diets to children. We can argue endlessly whether mid-day meals should be provided by NGOs or school and guardian committees, but what about the fare children are getting to eat? Will rice and watery dal with a measly dash of some vegetable suffice, or should we be raising the protein component through eggs, soybean, fish and meat, as well as essential vitamins through greens and fruits? Responding to several PILs, the Supreme Court too is now seized of the problem. It is already reading a ‘Right to Food’ under Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees the fundamental right to life; court appointed food commissioners have been tasked with monitoring the public distribution system (PDS) to ensure transparency.
Last month, the apex court, taking cognizance of another PIL, sought responses from the Central and State governments whether community kitchens can be set up to feed the hungry. The PIL referred to soup kitchens, food kitchens and meal centers operated by various countries, and the encouraging results from community kitchens set up within the country by States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Delhi. Pointing to the ‘unclear and fairly limited’ efficacy of hunger alleviation schemes implemented by the government, the PIL contends that the country presently has adequate resources and food stocks to realistically combat hunger.
For people outside PDS coverage, a national food grid can be set up; to meet the ‘Food for All’ objective, the State can also rope in corporates to use their CSR funds for community kitchens under private-public partnership (PPP) mode; if such kitchens create good number of jobs for cooks and helpers, so much the better. One thing should be clear — it is unacceptable that India is keeping company with famine afflicted, war ravaged sub-Saharan countries at the bottom of hunger and malnutrition tables year after year.