India's children starving to death while grain rots in fields
MORE THAN 3,000 children die each day across India from illnesses related to malnutrition and hunger, yet millions of tonnes of rodent-infested grain rot in fields across the north of the country.
Alarmingly high levels of hunger, undernourished children and poorly fed women were all due to a massive shortage of grain storage facilities and a corrupt public distribution system, officials have conceded. This resulted in India dropping to 67th of 81 developing nations in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index 2011.
Compounding the situation is a highly complex and expensive regime of grain subsidies for farmers, coupled with bureaucratic rules that would rather see the grain rot than distributed at low cost or given free to the desperately poor and needy.
“This is a case of criminal neglect by the government,” D Raja, an MP from the opposition Communist Party of India said.
More than 30 per cent of India’s population of more than 1.2 billion – some 400 million people – live below the poverty line.
Food insecurity is so rampant, even though India is the world’s largest producer of milk and edible oils and the second-largest producer of wheat and sugar, that it has been clubbed with minor economies such as Bangladesh, Timor-Leste and Yemen.
A government-sponsored survey earlier this year revealed that 42 per cent of children under the age of five were underweight – almost double the number in sub-Saharan Africa – compared to 43 years ago. This led prime minister Manmohan Singh to admit that malnutrition was a “national shame” that jeopardised the nation’s health. However, this did not result in remedial measures.
The report also indicated that the increase in hunger in India was in inverse proportion to its economic growth. At the start of India’s economic liberalisation era in the early 90s, 24 per cent of its population of about 1.2 billion were undernourished.
The situation marginally improved to 22 per cent between 2004 and 2006 but deteriorated further as the latest figure shows a 43.5 per cent decline between 2003-08. In 2010 the supreme court urged the government to distribute grain free to the hungry rather than let it go to waste.
But this never happened because of complicated political, bureaucratic and financial reasons and logistical shortcomings.
“The problem of rotting grains and the poor going hungry lies in the system itself,” said Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser on food issues to the supreme court.
The federal government is planning a food security scheme that will guarantee cheap grain to about 63.5 per cent of the population. But critics dismiss this as political gimmickry, and doubt the new scheme will be less corrupt, more efficient or better targeted than current programmes.
At least 77 people have been killed and nearly two million affected by heavy monsoon rains that caused floods in India’s northeastern Assam state. The Brahmaputra river and many of its tributaries have breached their banks, washing away thousands of homes, roads, bridges and power lines.