By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, October 18, 2019: India is a land of stark contrasts. The largest democracy has established itself as a space power, becoming only the fourth nation in the world, after US, China, and Russia to possess the capability of destroying a low earth orbit satellite. And yet, the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI) has ranked it a lowly 102 among the 117 countries it has mapped.

What is still worse is that it has slipped from the 95th rank in 2010 to the 102nd in 2019, behind its neighbours Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to the latest GHI, that measures the level of hunger and under-nutrition worldwide.

India is the world’s second largest food producer and at the same time, it is also home to the second-highest population of undernourished people in the world. Nearly 40 per cent of the food produced in India is wasted or lost and this costs the country a whopping Rs one lakh crore every year.

According to recent reports, more than a quarter of the population living in rural areas of India is below the poverty line. Out of the total population living in the rural parts of India, 25.7% is living below the poverty line whereas in the urban areas, the situation is a bit better with 13.7% of the population living below the poverty line. In total, 22% of its population lives below the poverty line.

In contrast, the country’s top 10 per cent of the population holds 77.4 per cent of the total national wealth. The contrast is even sharper for the top one per cent that holds 51.53 per cent of the national wealth. Indian billionaires saw their fortunes swell by Rs 2,200 crore a day last year, with the top one per cent of the country’s richest getting richer by 39 per cent as against just three per cent increase in wealth for the bottom-half of the population, an Oxfam study revealed.

Paradoxically, India tops the world hunger chart with around 20 crore Indians sleeping hungry each night. The hunger and malnutrition level in the country has reached such heights that nearly 20 lakh children who are born each year do not live beyond the age of five. Still worse is the fact that 19.44 crore people i.e 14.5% of the population remain undernourished in the country. Also, 51.4% of women in reproductive age between 15 to 49 years are anemic, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates in ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2019’ report.

The reports by GHI and FAO clearly expose the apathetic approach of the powers-that-be and failure of a slew of welfare measures initiated to tackle the issue of hunger. 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.

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”.

The NFSA created legal entitlements to existing food and nutrition security programmes. However, the question is has it made any dent in improving the quality of life for everyone?

Tribal hamlets are often remote and barely connected, making logistics and monitoring difficult. Indeed, the plight of those who suffer from hunger is only addressed when deaths resulting from starvation hog newspaper headlines that momentarily lead to public outrage.

Among the poorest people in India are those who belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – traditionally oppressed and disadvantaged classes. They are over-proportionally affected by poverty. With 10.4 crore people belonging to nearly 700 distinct ethnic groups, India has the second-largest tribal population in the world. The level of poverty and food and nutrition insecurity of the tribal people continues to be a major issue, despite several provisions in the Constitution for their protection and welfare.

Rainfed agriculture supports nearly 40% of the country’s population, but these farmers are highly sensitive to drought and other natural calamities, which can cause crops to fail and lead to spiralling debt. Decades ago the country’s agricultural growth rate increased phenomenally following the green revolution that turned the country from a “ship-to-mouth economy” into a land able to provide food security.

And yet, India faces a long road ahead in its quest to achieve Zero Hunger. Over three decades 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 refocus 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 this country in jeopardy.

The Narendra Modi government has set an ambitious target to double the income of farmers by 2022. To achieve this, the annual agricultural growth has to shoot up to a level of at least 14% per annum. 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.

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