In 1943 and 1944, Chittaprosad Bhattacharya, travelled through colonial Bengal making black and white ink sketches of the famine that had gripped the region. These drawing were published as part of Chittaprosad’s first publication called “Hungry Bengal”. Most copies of the work were destroyed by British administrators, enraged that they had been blamed for the carnage. Four decades later, Nobel laurate Amartya Sen confirmed Chittaprosad’s contention. The famine, which killed 3 million people, was no natural calamity – it had been engineered by the colonial administration.
The famines and mass starvation that were an almost mundane feature of the Raj are a thing of the past in India. Yet, the hunger that Chittaprosad documented never totally went away. The hunger situation in India is still “serious”, notes the Global Hunger Index, 2017, a report prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Globally, the report looks at 119 developing countries. The report measures hunger using four data points: undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality. The good news is that the world is less hungry than it was in 2000: hunger has decreased by 27% since then.
The news from India’s perspective however is less rosy. India ranks 100th on that list in ensuring food security for its peoples, placing it in the high end of the “serious” category. Not only that, India lags even in its own neighbourhood.
Indians see more hunger than each one of their neighbours, except Pakistan
India is easily the most dominant country in South Asia. While this translates into influence and power for the Union government, Indians themselves seem to have not benefited much from this. India’s supposedly weaker neighbours do a much better job of feeding their citizens. The only country India manages to beat is Pakistan.
India is doing better than before (but so is every other country on the planet)
A relative ranking paints a dismal picture for India. Comparing India to her own past, however, provides a silver lining. India has done better over the past 25 years in combating hunger.
However, this is a very thin silver line since, as it so happens, every country on earth has decreased its score during this time frame. In fact, India trails the globe when it comes to the quantum of decrease. While the planet has reduced hunger by 27% since 2000, the corresponding number for India is only 18%.
Most of India’s neighbours have made better progress than it
India embarked on economic reforms in 1991, revving up its economy and making its Gross Domestic Produce one of the fastest growing in the world. Yet, curiously, this has done relatively little for development compared to other countries in South Asia. India’s poor neighbours such as Nepal and Bangladesh, which saw no such seminal reforms, have still beaten it in in combating that most basic of development challenges: hunger.
In 1992, India was ahead of two countries, Myanmar and Bangladesh in combating hunger. In the past 25 years, however, both these countries have managed to make greater strides than India. So much so that Bangladeshis and Burmese are today better fed than Indians.
If it’s any consolation, the one country even worse governed than India in that time period is – unsurprisingly – Pakistan. Pakistan actually had a better score than India in 1992. But in two and a half decades, it slipped behind India to become New Delhi’s most malnourished neighbour.
India performs abysmally at feeding its children
Twenty one per cent of Indian children suffer from wasting, that is, have a weight lower than normal for their height. Only three other countries in the world have worse statistics for child wasting than India. Moreover, India’s child wasting numbers have actually got worse since 1992, increasing from 20% to 21% in 2017, making it a laggard in South Asia.
Nearly 40% of Indian children are also stunted (have low height for their age) due to hunger – better than only Pakistan in the neighborhood. India’s under 5 mortality rate is 4.8%. Amongst its neighbours, only Myanmar and Pakistan are worse.
Why does India do so badly in feeding its children? While India has implemented two large-scale national programs that address nutrition – the Integrated Child Development Services and the National Health Mission – but these have yet to “achieve adequate coverage”, says the report. This is even as factors such as lack of food and poor access to sanitation means Indian children grow up malnourished compared to most other countries in the world as well as its own immediate neighbourhood.
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