Widespread hunger co-exists with unprecedented wealth accumulation and spending. And to think tons of foodgrain are rotting in government warehouses.

Starvation is a way of life for anything between 80 and 320 million people. But this is unseen and unacknowledged by governments in India. The official position on starvation is that it is an aberration that occasionally occurs in drought conditions, but it is not a condition endemic to the ordinary daily life of millions of destitute people who subsist in the margins of most urban and rural communities.

Nutritionists suggest that people need 1600 kilocalories only to keep the body functions going even with almost no activity. If a person does nothing except lie down all day, she still needs 1600 kilocalories to sustain her body metabolism. If she eats less than that, she is starving. Ahmad and others using household survey data from 1999, estimated that 17 per cent of people in India survive on less than 1600 kilocalories a day, which they classify as conditions of being ‘ultra-hungry’. If these trends continue, the stark truth is that possibly one in five or six of our people grapple with starvation as an element of daily living.

Looming crisis

Many studies confirm that an alarming nutritional crisis routinely stalks the lives of millions of men, women and children in India. According to the WHO, a population with more than 40 per cent of the people having a BMI (a measure of weight to height) of less than 18.5 can be said to be living in famine conditions. In India, the official National Family Health Survey 2005-06 reports that 34.2 per cent of adult men and 35.6 per cent of adult women in the age group of 15 to 49, and in rural India 38.4 per cent of adult men and 40.6 per cent of adult women, have a BMI of less than 18.5. This suggests conditions of endemic but unacknowledged near-famine.

A survey on self-reported hunger undertaken for UNDP by NGO Pratham, in selected districts in 2007, found that the number of people consuming less than two meals a day varied from 5 to 23 per cent in the rural areas, whereas the number of women having just one or two set of clothes (another indicator of extreme poverty) was as high as 60 per cent in some districts. A 2008 UNDP study in 16 districts reports that 7.5 per cent of people have highly inadequate access to foodgrain; and for 29 per cent households it is ‘somewhat inadequate’.

The Planning Commission, however, is confident that food production in India will continue to be sufficient to meet the demand for food of all people who live in India. It suggests that the green revolution ensured the country has moved from chronic food shortages to an era of surplus and export in most foodstuffs. Along with steps to achieve adequate production, initiatives were taken to reach on time foodstuffs to areas facing shortages at affordable costs through the public distribution system—the world’s most extensive and dispersed food-based safety net, with half a million retail outlets penetrating even deep interiors of rural India. For food insecure families the Indian government has an impressive range of schemes, the largest in the world, for food transfers and livelihood security.

All these claims are true but, like many qualified truths and half-truths, hide more than they reveal. New technology tied with some land reforms did dramatically enhance foodgrain production from 104.67 million tons to 213.19 million tons in merely three decades from 1973-74 to 2003-04. In the five decades since 1950, foodgrain production increased by a factor of almost four, oilseeds by five, milk by five, fish by seven and eggs by more than 15, as observed by Farrington and Saxena. Foodgrain production in 2011-12 is estimated to reach an all-time record of 250.42 million tons.

Double whammy

But the impression of plenty, created by glittering shopping malls and the overflowing government grain warehouses (in the early 2000s and again in 2011-12), is an illusion. N.C. Saxena observes that foodgrain production per year per head has fallen from 208 kg in 1996-97 to 186 kg in 2009-10. He finds that per capita foodgrain production has dropped 11 per cent from 1996-97 to 2009-10. This, coupled with India's average exports of nearly 7 million tonnes of cereals per year, has further reduced per capita availability by 15 per cent between 1991 and 2008. This reduced availability affects the bottom 20 per cent of the population, which consumes 20 per cent less cereal than the top 10 per cent of the population. Moreover, according to work done by Chandrashekar which is based on NSSO surveys, they spend a greater share of their income on food. This implies that their stagnating incomes do not allow them to eat more food to keep pace with increasing prices, while the greater share of those incomes still go towards food. This becomes a back-breaking double whammy. The consequences of this deprivation are even more acute because typically impoverished people require comparatively more calories, as they earn their living through harder manual work.

In 2001, when the stock of foodgrains in government warehouses stood at around 50 million tons, Jean Dreze wrote in The Hindu that if these sacks of grain were lined up in a row, the line would stretch for a million kilometres - more than twice the distance from the earth to the moon. Grain stocks have continued to rise since and recently peaked recently to 80 million tons, and we joked that with the much larger stocks now, you could probably go around the earth before taking off for the moon!

Although the persistence of malnutrition is acknowledged and addressed (albeit imperfectly) by Indian policymakers, conditions of absolute hunger are far less accepted or studied. Widespread but unacknowledged hunger, masking conditions of endemic hidden near-famine, co-exists with unprecedented wealth accumulation and spending by a growing rich and middle class, and with foodgrain rotting in government warehouses because the government refuses to distribute this grain to the poor. A law which would force governments to reach much of this grain to people who live with hunger sadly languishes in Parliament, with little political support. Millions seem condemned to live with – and die of – starvation for a while longer.