India ranks amongst countries where hunger is widespread even with high agricultural yield. Ubaid Sidique outlines how despite several government and private welfare initiatives, chronic structural flaws alongside corruption and the impact of global events is hindering India’s aim of achieving zero hunger for her people.
India, home to more than 1.39 billion people is one of the top food-producing nations in the world. The production of food grains has been increasing continuously from the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s, and today India is one of the leading producers of rice, wheat, pulses and cotton. She ranks first in the production of milk, and second in production of fruits and vegetables.
But despite agricultural self-sufficiency, a steadily increasing GDP, and increased per capita consumption, India finds itself engulfed in a serious hunger crisis. This is discernible by the continuous downslide on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), published jointly by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. India ranked 107th out of 121 countries in 2022. With a score of 29.1, India lags behind its neighbours Sri Lanka (64), Nepal (81), Bangladesh (84) and Pakistan (99) in addressing hunger.
Hunger in India
Despite India’s rising per capita income, millions of children and women suffer from ‘hidden hunger’. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2022 Report’, 224.3 million people, or 16 per cent of India’s population, are undernourished with 53 per cent of reproductive-age women also being anemic. More than 17.3 per cent of children suffer from child-wasting, and more than 30.9 per cent are stunted, exposing them to common childhood diseases like malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, etc., which are leading causes of child mortality in India. Even though India’s child mortality rate fell from 2.5 million per year in 2000 to 1.2 million per year in 2015, it still remains the world’s highest number for mortality for children under 5 years.
Poverty is the leading cause of rising hunger in India. While poverty has fallen from 21.9 per cent in 2011 to 10.4 per cent in 2017–18, even then, more than 150 million people live below US$1.90 per day on PPP (Purchasing Power Parity). National Statistics Office (NSO) survey data shows that rural consumer spending (a proxy for income in India) fell by 10 per cent each year, and by 4 per cent in urban areas. This affects food quality and quantity for a vulnerable population.
With 65 per cent of the population rural and 54.6 per cent of the workforce in agriculture and allied activities, poverty and hunger in India are significantly reliant on agriculture. Reduced land ownership, reliance on monsoons, limited irrigation infrastructure, low agricultural financing, and minimal government initiatives are serious and chronic problems in agriculture. The situation is worrisome, affecting the availability of healthy food for all. In their book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2012), economists and Nobel Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo discussed the question of hunger in India, blaming the fall in non-market food sources and luxury expenditures.
Other reasons that directly or indirectly exacerbate India’s hunger problem include joblessness, social and gender inequities, lack of awareness about health and hygiene, etc. Climate Change and wars with global impact also affect India’s food security, as does low investments in the social sector. It makes the poor vulnerable to market volatility in non-food essentials like healthcare, education, etc., which squeezes food budgets and worsens famine in India. Seasonal movement of temporary labourers in pursuit of livelihoods exposes them to unhygienic situations which affect their health, particularly that of the women and children accompanying them. All this is in addition to the already present large numbers of hungry and malnourished people, due to a lack of purchasing power and distributive fairness.
The principal issue is not a shortage of food production but a dysfunctional food delivery and distribution system that is driving millions to starvation in a world with sufficient food for everyone. According to Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (Government of India), since independence in 1947, food grain production in India has risen from 51 million to 272 million tonnes. FAO estimates that about 40 per cent of India’s food is wasted: 30 per cent of vegetables and fruits expire owing to lack of cold storage, and hundreds of tonnes of food grains rot in unsafe warehouses. According to an Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) assessment on post-harvest losses, India loses ₹92,651 crore per year due to inadequate agricultural logistics, which primarily includes poor storage infrastructure and transit facilities. This inefficient supply chain management wastes an enormous volume of foodgrains in a nation which has 28 per cent of the world’s impoverished population. These shards of data show that the world and India are far behind in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG-2) which aims to end global hunger by 2030.
In an already unequal world, Covid-19 exacerbated the problem by pushing millions into food insecurity due to sudden unemployment and economic disruption. The pandemic not only disrupted the supply chains, hampering the movement of food but also led to labour shortages once the country went into lockdown, thus pushing up the prices of essential commodities.
Government Initiatives and Bottlenecks
The Government of India has undertaken several policy changes and social initiatives to attain a hunger-free society and enhance the nutritional level of its peoples. These include providing subsidised food through the Public Distribution System (PDS) and Targeted PDS, and targeted supplementation (through the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme), Mid-Day Meal Scheme for school children, MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005), AAY (Antyodana Aana Yojana) aimed at reducing hunger in the poorest of the poor, and the NFSA (National Food Security Act) of 2013. In 2018, the Indian government launched POSHAN Abhiyan (National Nutrition Mission) to improve nutritional outcomes for children, adolescents, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers.
There are a number of operational issues and challenges that prevent such policies from producing its desired outcomes. The conventional PDS has leaks, exclusion errors and considerable administrative expenses. A number of reports claim that about 30–58 per cent of food grains do not reach the targeted households owing to methodological flaws in compiling beneficiary data or lack of sustainable agricultural and logistical infrastructure. In a country as vast and populous as India, such a system of food distribution on a large scale is a logistical challenge. These initiatives also face lax administrative behaviour and lack of political will to execute them, alongside corruption and leakages at the ground level.
The NFSA is another crucial legislation of food security. The act provides 5 kilograms (kgs) of subsidised food per individual every month (wheat at ₹2 per kg, rice at ₹3 per kg and coarse grains ₹1 per kg), with intended benefit to 75 per cent rural population and 50 per cent urban population. The legislation has great potential to promote food security but it confronts several problems, including high administrative expenditures, anomalistic centre–state relations, and an inefficient social protection system in India. India has achieved food self-sufficiency and reduced poverty, but combating hunger and its underlying diseases is daunting, owing mostly to the short-term, ad-hoc, populist political–administrative approach of the government.
Hunger is more about the distribution of food than its unavailability. Also, hunger is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach. First, India’s agriculture sector, which supports more than half the population but contributes only 14 % to the national GDP, needs overhaul. Agriculture should be promising for India, but fragmented landholdings (80 per cent of farmers operate on small holdings of less than 2 hectares), inadequate supply chain infrastructure, insufficient social security, and Climate Change undermine its effectiveness. Tackling these issues demands the use of state-of-the-art and sustainable agriculture techniques to manage food production fluctuations. Equally important is limiting non-agricultural use of agricultural land.
Second, public distribution schemes need fixing to better target food distribution. For schemes like Mid-day Meals, India could go local for procurement of food grains from small farmers. It would not only address transportation costs and wastage but will allow for the doubling of farmers’ income. Third, Climate Change, which threatens global agriculture and food production could be tackled using Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) to reduce its impacts, benefiting farmers financially and nutritionally. Fourth, we need to reduce food waste. According to the FAO, more than a third of the food produced is wasted. It requires a concerted effort by the government, non-profit organisations, civil society, and individuals. For instance, Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation’s ‘Feed The Need’ initiative and ‘Community Fridges’ in Gurugram (Haryana) have been helpful. Individual efforts like the ‘Robin Hood Army’ (in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu) and ‘No Food Waste’ are noteworthy. While the former gathers restaurant leftovers and gives them to the needy, the latter collects food from weddings and other community events. A community collaboration like ‘Roti Bank’ in Mahoba (Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh) addresses local hunger. Here, homeowners make surplus food that is collected by volunteers and given to hungry and homeless persons free of charge.
However, any endeavour to eradicate hunger must include gender equity and justice, since women are more likely to be hungry in two-thirds of the world’s nations. If women farmers had equal access to resources, agricultural productivity would rise by 20–30 per cent, eliminating hunger by 100–150 million. Additionally, India must invest in disaster risk reduction to reduce shocks of natural and man-made calamities.
On Earth, people fight to feed themselves and their children. With enough food to feed everyone, 690 million people go to bed hungry, including 189.2 million in India. Malnutrition caused 69 per cent of child deaths in India in 2019-20. The pandemic exacerbated the crisis, revealing India’s stern inequality. Key flagship projects failing to deliver due to administrative constraints at different levels intensifies the problem further. The policy formulation-implementation gap results in low social performance.
Complexity and micro-level participation are needed to end hunger in India. The aim should be to learn from past errors and promote measures that enhance equitable access to food, relieving millions of India’s hungry. With ample resources at the helm, we need to invest money and people wisely. Governments, NGOs, people, and communities must all work together. Everyone has a moral, if not legal, obligation to ensure that no one goes to bed with an empty stomach when there is enough food for all.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Banner image © David Talukdar, ‘Scenic Beauty of a Mustard Field in a Bamboo Fence’, Barpeta, India, 2022, Unsplash.