If there is one thing former President Abdul Kalam can not be accused of, it is a lack of optimism. In his book, India 2020, Kalam laid out a pollyannaish vision for how India could become a superpower by 2020. With less than four years to go for Kalam’s deadline, however, the International Food Policy Research Institute has ranked India at an abysmal 97th place globally in combatting hunger.
Called the Global Hunger Index, the report paints a reality very different from India 2020. Far from becoming a superpower, India has failed to provide its people with that most basic of rights: freedom from hunger.
Thirty nine per cent of Indian children under the age of five show stunted growth while 15% are wasted – which means they are getting so little food, it increases their chances of dying significantly. The lack of food available for Indian children, amongst other factors, means that that a shocking one out of every twenty children die before their fifth birthday.
Some of the countries that manage to offer more food security to their people include Kenya, Malawi and even war-torn Iraq. Except Pakistan, all of India’s neighbours – Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar – manage to outrank India on this list. To understand what this means in real terms, if India had managed to reach Sri Lanka's child mortality rate, it could have saved more than an estimated 9 lakh of its children born in 2016 from dying by 2021. That's the size of a town of dead children.
Given these horrific numbers, far from being a superpower, India is yet to reach the average developing country score on the Global Hunger Index.
While Kalam might have got things terribly wrong, it’s not hard to see where he was coming from. Controlled by the prism of caste, public conversation in India rarely focuses on matters of human development. Vital issues such as hunger and public health are almost always superseded by issues which interest upper caste Indians, such as Pakistan or the prime minister’s foreign tours.
There are few topics that generate more emotion than that of hunger. In India’s democratic space, the country’s alarming hunger problem should therefore be a prime issue. But, surprisingly, that’s not the case. Hunger and malnutrition are fairly unimportant topics in Indian politics. The BBC ran a word frequency analysis of Narendra Modi’s speeches for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the top issues discussed were Gujarat, security, Congress, development, jobs and change. Food, hunger, malnutrition and related concepts simply didn’t feature in the soon-to-be-prime minister’s speeches.
Things weren’t much different after Modi took office. While the prime minister is a master communicator, skilfully channelling issues such as cleanliness in India, Balochistan and “Make in India” - the Union government’s pitch to push manufacturing in India - yet, conspicuously, hunger and malnutrition remain absent from his messaging. And this isn’t only an issue with Narendra Modi or the Bharatiya Janata Party. One study found that only 3% of questions in Parliament related to children while only 5% of these questions related to early childhood care and development. This, in a country which has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world.
This isn’t only a problem with India’s politics – the media is complicit too. Hunger and, more broadly, health rarely makes the news with the same sort of urgency as, say, the prime minister addressing non-resident Indians in a Western nation.
Economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen actually went through editorials in India’s major newspaper for the last six months of 2012 and found that only 1% dealt with health. In their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Drèze and Sen write that, “outside sub-Saharan Africa, one has to go to conflict-ravaged countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq or Papua New Guinea to find lower immunisation rates than India’s”.
Yet, this alarming failure of governance in India produces no outrage either in India's newspapers, television channels or its social media.
There are few issues as emotive as hunger or dying children. Yet, both politics and the media ignore them. The reasons are many but maybe the most important is the elite capture of the national narrative by upper castes. India might have an alarming health crisis on its hands but its unique caste system also means that upper castes are hermetically sealed off from the problem.
India's wasted and dying children are largely Adivasi, Dalit and Shudra. This 2011 study published in the Economic and Political Weekly, for example, shows that underweight rates are 53% higher for Dalit children as compared to Hindu Upper Castes. The figure is even higher for Adivasis at 69%. Shudra children have underweight rates 35% higher than Upper Caste groups – better than Dalits and Adivasis but still significantly worse than India's elites.
It is not surprising then that India's hunger problem goes mostly unreported: Dalits and Adivasis and Shudras have almost no voice in India’s media and a very small one in national politics. A 2006 survey of 300 media decision-makers in India could not find a single Dalit or Adivasi in that group.
Politics is actually slightly better but even here Dalit and Shudra issues feature far below the priority list as compared to, say, urban upper caste issues. Narendra Modi's Union cabinet, for example, is heavily weighted in favour of upper castes, far outstripping their share in the population.
This stratification is causing immense harm to Indians who seem to be stuck in a poverty trap. As an illustration of just how slow India’s development is, it might be worthwhile to compare with neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal. In 2000, Bangladesh was ranked one place below India. In just 15 years, however, it shot past India and got itself placed 7 ranks ahead. In 2000, Nepal was only six ranks ahead of India. In 2016, however, Nepal was 25 places above India. India’s inability to offer its people the same development opportunities as those available to Nepalis or Bangladeshis is alarming. Moreover, the fact that the country’s elites don’t even realise that their country is falling behind is a sign that the situation doesn’t even look like it’s going to change soon.