The case study “India: Making Food a Right for All”, prepared as a 2016 Global Hunger Index supplement, published by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, and forming part of the book “Country Case Studies: Working to Zero Hunger”, argues that India may have made “considerable progress in tackling hunger and undernutrition in the past two decades”. Yet, it says, “this pace of change has been uneven and many have been left behind.” Excerpts:
In total, 22% of its population lives below the poverty line (Government of India 2013). At the same time, it is home to 84 of the world’s billionaires (Forbes 2016). India’s top 1% own more than 50% of the country’s wealth. It is the world’s second largest food producer and yet is also home to the second-highest population of undernourished people in the world (FAO 2015). One side of this story is clear from the score for India on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) – 28.5 (von Grebmer et al 2016).
By contrast, Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, all of whom share the BRICS high table with India, have a single-digit score. India’s neighbours, including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have better GHI scores as well. Although the country has managed to reduce instances of stunting among children by nearly half in the past decade compared to the previous one (IFPRI 2015), India remains home to one-third of the world´s stunted children (UNICEF et al. 2016). It therefore falls into the ‘serious’ category in this year’s GHI.
Now, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is seeking to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. The tangible outcomes will be to eradicate instances of stunting among children and guarantee every citizen with access to adequate food throughout the year through sustainable food systems, the doubling of smallholder productivity and income, and zero food loss or waste.
Although rainfed agriculture supports nearly 40% of India’s population (Government of India 2012), these farmers are highly sensitive to drought, which can cause crops to fail and lead to spiralling debt. The key driver behind the goal to reach Zero Hunger and malnutrition is to ensure that no one is left behind in the pursuit of food and nutrition security. In the Indian context, this will also mean greatly improving the health of women and children.
The Government of India enacted the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013, a law seeking to “provide for food and nutritional security […] by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity” (Ministry of Law and Justice 2013). The 2013 NFSA created legal entitlements to existing governmental food and nutrition security programmes. Most significantly, it has changed the nature of discourse on food, making it a human right and putting the onus on the state to guarantee basic entitlements.
However, the question is whether the quality of life has actually improved for everyone in the meantime. The food provided by the Government through its procurement and disbursement schemes serves the calorific requirement for some of the population. However, the system has also altered their food habits, made them dependent on rice and wheat and eliminated traditional diet diversity, thereby reducing the micronutrient content of the food on their plates.
Those Left Behind
Among the poorest people in India are those who belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – traditionally oppressed classes for whom the Indian constitution provides special affirmative provisions to promote and protect their social, educational and economic interests. The Scheduled Castes include millions of Dalits, or ‘untouchables’, who continue to be subject to endemic discrimination. This is also the case for the Scheduled Tribes, which comprise indigenous people, also known as Adivasis, who are often disadvantaged, in part because of the forested geographies in which they live.
As a consequence, Dalits and Adivasis are overproportionally affected by poverty. With 104 million people belonging to nearly 700 distinct ethnic groups, India has the second-largest tribal population in the world (Government of India 2011). 47% of the rural tribal population lives below the national poverty line, compared to the national average for rural areas of 28% (Rao 2012). The level of poverty and food and nutrition insecurity of the tribal people continues to be a major issue, despite the affirmative action put in place by the architects of India’s Constitution for their protection and welfare.
The Adivasis have borne witness to the appropriation of their lands, destruction of their environment and commoditisation of their traditional knowledge – a lopsided bargain which has come at the cost of their way of life and well-being, beginning with their health and the security of resources for future generations. Safeguards such as informed consent have been thrown to the winds in the rush to acquire and trade forest produce and land on a large scale. The problems faced by the indigenous people of India are further iterated by a recent study conducted by the United Nations Children´s Fund (UNICEF).
Covering 11 states, it shows that every second Adivasi child is stunted, 68% of Adivasi mothers are less than 20 years old, 48% are undernourished and 76% are anaemic. Furthermore, the study states that the risk of severe stunting is nearly twice as high among girls aged 6-23 months compared to boys (UNICEF 2014). This may be due to food distribution practices within households and gender discrimination, resulting in woman receiving less food or men being served the best portions.
The efforts of the Food Security Act and a range of other laws to tackle these issues have encountered many challenges. Adivasi hamlets are often remote and poorly connected, making logistics and monitoring difficult. Indeed, the plight of those who suffer from hunger is only addressed when deaths resulting from starvation momentarily lead to public outrage. These are the groups that need support most urgently.
Ending a Nutrition Paradox
India’s agricultural growth rate increased phenomenally in the decades following the green revolution that turned the country from a “ship-to-mouth economy” into a land able to provide food security. This growth was propelled by technological changes, major investment in infrastructure such as irrigation, markets and roads, the development of credit institutions, auxiliary services and the facilitation of pricing policies.
However, the revolution has come with several significant limitations. As a result, a more ecologically and socially sustainable ‘evergreen revolution’ is needed. India still faces a long road ahead in its quest to achieve Zero Hunger. Over 25 years since India ushered in its economic reforms, the country’s economy has undergone significant structural transformations, encouraging planners to turn their focus away from agriculture and instead towards the service and manufacturing sectors. The priority now is to return attention to agriculture and its central role of providing food security, reducing poverty and generating employment.
Turning one’s back on agriculture, particularly in a time when the climate is changing considerably, will put the food security of the 1.25 billion people living in India in jeopardy. The Government has recently set an ambitious target to double the income of farmers by 2022 (The Economic Times 2016). This corresponds to targeted annual agricultural growth of more than 14% per year. More needs to be done to enhance the role that agriculture can play in improving nutrition outcomes, for example via the implementation of cross-sector policies and programmes at national and sub-national levels.
Efforts must also be made to ensure that small-scale, marginal and landless farmers are the true beneficiaries of these policies, as too many people are being left behind in India’s efforts to reach Zero Hunger. This goal can only be achieved when the people who are most excluded are placed at the centre of all action and thinking.