By: Ben Doherty
Twenty-three village children went to school in Bihar on Tuesday last week, promised an education and a meal at midday.
They were dead by the end of the day, poisoned by the food their government gave them.
Tomorrow I have a problem, too, but I worry only about today.
As India roiled over the tragedy, and politicians blamed teachers, conspiracy, and each other, the nation’s visceral outrage also hinted at a broader frustration: a recognition that, after decades, this tragedy was not the pitiable exception but merely the latest, the most desperately sad, in a long-running series of failures of this country to feed itself.
Half the world’s hungry people live in India: there are more children going without food here than in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
When the statistic emerged last year that 42 per cent of Indian children were stunted because they were malnourished, the Prime Minister described it as a ”national shame”.
But it is no new shame. For decades, poor Indians, particularly women and children, have gone hungry.
And, despite years of expensive programs, government efforts to provide that most fundamental of services – to feed its population – regularly founder amid corruption, incompetence, and indifference.
Next month, the government will implement its most ambitious plan yet. It has promised cheap wheat, rice, and millet to two-thirds of the country’s population, more than 800 million people.
Political opponents, and even some allies, say it is more cynical vote-bank politics – ”an election stunt aimed at garnering the votes of poor people”, according to a party leader in Uttar Pradesh.
And economists argue increasing the food subsidy bill to $21 billion a year will devastate the country’s economy, reinforcing a culture of handouts when the money would be better spent on infrastructure. There are already dozens of schemes designed to subsidise food but these are frequently so corrupted or mismanaged as to do little good.
So far this year in Kerala, a wealthy southern state that exports rice to other parts of the country, 35 children in the tribal region of Attappadi have starved to death.
Muslim, who only goes by one name, is a father of nine in Muzaffarnagar, in the poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh. He has no land and so his children often go hungry. He qualifies for ”below-poverty-line” assistance, but his BPL card was fraudulently sold to someone else. Last month, of the 25 kilograms of wheat to which he was entitled, he got six. ”I am not getting all the food that I should, and that my family needs. I was on the below-poverty-line list but someone took my card. So that man is getting the food that should be going to me.”
He says the local government ration shop is deeply corrupted.
”Sometimes when I go there to get the food that I am supposed to have, they tell me, ‘It is all gone.’ They have sold it to the markets, where I cannot afford to buy it. I am not worried about the future; I am worried for today. Tomorrow I have a problem, too, but I worry only about today.”
The causes of hunger are complex, as are its solutions.
India’s problem is not intractable. It produces enough food to feed its 1.2 billion people. But the system of getting food to bellies is so flawed the poorest often miss out on the most basic food, and those who need help most are voiceless.
It is estimated that between 30 and 40 per cent of the food grown in this country never gets eaten, because it never makes it to market.
Poor, or absent, infrastructure means farmers are at constant risk of having to watch their crops rot by the side of the road. And corruption – market prices that leave farmers with nothing to show from months of work, or profiteers who siphon off government-granted grain intended for the poor – leaves millions unsure if they’ll have enough to eat each day.
Vedpal Singh runs the government ”fair price” shop in a village near to Muslim’s. He says about 1300 out of 2000 people there qualify for subsidised grain but there are too many who are not poor benefiting, while not enough help is given to the extremely poor. The new food security ordnance is more of the same, he says.
”When this program comes in, many more people will have cards, and will be entitled to cheaper food. But the system does not work. Trying to cover two-thirds of the population cannot work; the government should concentrate on feeding the very poorest, who are at risk of starving.”