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Between June 7 and June 15, residents of a Gujarati village, Ludbai, claimed that as many as five babies had died of malnutrition. The eldest of these, claimed the village’s headman, was only 15 months old. “I also reported this issue to the taluk and district levels, but the system took no action,” he alleged.

With the government missing in action, the headman organised a medical camp with the help of a non governmental organisation. An examination by a doctor found as many as 39 children malnourished.

The administration, meanwhile, denied the headman’s allegations. It claims that only two of those babies had died due to malnutrition.

India in 2023 is often billed to an emerging superpower. Indeed on some fronts, it has remarkable achievements. Just earlier this month, the country launched a spacecraft which would try to land on the moon. If successful, India would be only the fourth country to land on the moon. Yet, alongside these achievements exists the fact that the residents of Ludbai village are engaged in a dark debate with the state government over whether five or two babies had died due to malnutrition.

Some decades back, India truly faced food shortages. However, nothing of the sort exists now. The country produces enough food and is even a major exporter of some commodities. It is also the world’s fifth largest economy. Yet, paradoxically, it can’t solve a problem seemingly as basic as malnutrition.

A serious problem

How odd India’s malnutrition problem is can be gauged from the fact that its citizens are worse off than many countries poorer than it. According to the 2022 Global Hunger Index, for example, India ranked 107th out of 121 countries. Not only did Sri Lanka (64), Nepal (81) and Bangladesh (84) beat India, remarkably the index found that even Pakistanis were significantly more food secure than Indians, inspite of being poorer.

This paradox can even be seen within the Indian Union. Gujarat, for example, where these deaths occurred, is one of India’s most prosperous, industrialised states. However, this wealth has a mixed relationship with actual quality of life. As Scroll had reported in 2021, paradoxically, West Bengal, a state that has seen industrial decline since independence, somehow has healthier children than industrially vibrant Gujarat.

This paradox is further underscored by recent data released by the NITI Ayog, the Union government’s think tank. Not only does West Bengal have a significantly lower proportion of undernourished citizens, it is managing to reduce its number at a much faster rate than Gujarat.

Bhagwati vs Sen redux

One interpretation of these two points could be that industrial growth does not matter. That would be, to not put too fine a point on it, silly. Bordering West Bengal on the east, Bangladesh has performed even better on human development, helped immensely by its strong industrial development in the garments industry. Similarly, Tamil Nadu has managed to combine industrial growth and human development, making sure the former powers the latter.

The real takeaway from this is that while industrial development is a necessary condition for human development, it is not sufficient. In polities like Gujarat, it is possible to actually have one without the other. In a way, Gujarat’s poor record on human development is a denouement to the famous debate between the economists Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati that took place towards the end of the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government. In it, Bhagwati argued that economic growth by itself would be enough to raise living standards. Sen, on the other hand, argued against laissez-faire, saying that specific welfare policies would be needed to raise the actual living standards of Indians.

Push and pull

Oddly enough, even as evidence that Sen was right piles higher, there is a political pushback to welfare. Currently, the prime minister, Narendra Modi is attacking Opposition-ruled states providing welfare by pejoratively terming them “revdis” or sweets – insinuating that they are handouts. Data, however, shows that India actually underspends on welfare compared to countries with comparable wealth.

Even more alarming is that fact that India’s economic growth has significantly slowed down over the past decade meaning that the significant increase in resources that the Indian state saw post the 1980s, as growth picked up, will likely not be repeated in the near future.

The silver lining to this is that welfare is now deeply embedded in India’s democratic system. Most Indians are aware of the fact that their votes are a critical tool in order to force the state to listen to their demands. In fact, they know that it is often the only tool they have. It is this mobilisation that has resulted in the limited welfare that India currently has. But of course that India’s children still keep dying of malnutrition means the state has to do a lot more.