• Swastik Routray

(Un)ending Hunger

The world, as of, 2020 has seen 17 major famines and innumerable smaller ones. The most recent one occurred as a fallout of the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007 costing 5.5 million lives.

Famines unfortunately only provide a subnormal case for absolute hunger and can be deduced as a clear case of extraordinary geopolitical failure. Ironically, those facing undernourishment and partial starvation in growing countries are shrouded in the smoke of economic neglect.

Spanning 100 years is an elite impression that steeps our understanding of hunger as less of an economic problem and more of a socio-institutional one. Sure, this may be the case with war-torn economies, but it’s unfair to assume the same for comparatively stable societies. This understanding has been farmed over years of media outlook. When Liam Neeson, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, narrates the plight of stunted kids in Yemen, it’s hard not to equate hunger with drought, famine, and foreign aid. Similarly, it’s also harsh to equate hunger with the non-availability of food. As civilizations evolve, the yardstick for the cost of food (and therefore hunger) should not be fixated by approaches like ‘Jail Cost of Living’ (JCL). Ingenuine for its time, the JCL counts only in survival basics where a balanced diet may not be a necessity.

Many go hungry during a famine, but not all who are hungry are fighting a famine. This essential difference lends a voice to those not under the ‘UN gaze’. Marginal farmers, slum dwellers, factory workers, day-wage laborers, rag pickers, security, and maintenance personnel, and even traditional artisans have met the fate of deprivation. The problem assumes form amidst the hesitation to define hunger as a systemic loophole. Sample India’s premier food policy National Food Security Act (2013). Brought about with many premises to deal with rural indebtedness and procurement distress, the NFSA in its rolling span strengthened the distribution system by establishing decentralized supply-chains and centralizing procurement systems. Off late, however, food security hasn’t piqued the center’s interests. Under-provisioning of food subsidy is a major misfire, having led the Food Corporation of India to borrow profusely from NSSF (National Sample Savings Fund) to continue procurement operations. While history stands witness to a billion sufferings, it’s a shame that its scholars have hardly put it to use.

The preceding instance merely steals a look at the center’s faltering responsibility towards extremely promising interventions. Of evidence is the contention that only a few political incumbencies at the center have strived to better a praised policy. Standing atop the founding stones of availability, accessibility, and affordability, the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) came into effect to reduce the number of hungry people on an aggregate level. The NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) in many of its survey exercises attempts at defining ‘hungry’ to be that percentage of the aggregate population that sleeps without two square meals a day. With its commendable track record in muzzling poverty below the one-fourth mark, TPDS now covers more than 81 crore beneficiaries. A nine-state survey conducted by EPW even found that the purchase-entitlement ratio (PER) has shown marked improvement. It is not bereft of serious glitches, albeit. The scheme is a magnet to ground-level corruption. It has taken flak for leakages amounting to a third, sometimes half, of the entitled amount. These, however, are systemic bugs all policies encounter. The real deal is an upgrade. With the noble intention of making the beneficiary experience smoother, Aadhar-based biometric authentication for PDS was implemented on a trial basis in Ranchi in 2016. It got an almost immediate retort. The PDS profile and the Aadhar account should be linked to the same mobile number if the fingerprint fails to authenticate. At the dispense of strong cellular connectivity and an unrelenting power supply, food grains depend on a One Time Password (OTP), at the failure of reception of which, the farm tiller walks without food. Reliance on governance is cherished in policy-making, however, finding the right economic suite to accompany such a mammoth change is slightly more indispensable.

It’s the evolving nature of hunger that is causing all the chaos. Hunger encompasses a diverse gamut of issues. Having something to eat does not ensure dietary balance, the fulfillment of calorie requirements or even purchasing power in the least. Access, equality, affordability health, and nutrition are just some of the many facets. A vast chunk of the reason why social, administrative, and governance aspects of Poverty and Hunger might have an upper hand over hard economic analogies is that they are locked out of schemes designed for them. Martin Burt, the rising social entrepreneur and author of Who Owns Poverty writes that experts pay little heed to the fact that the poor are rational decision-makers, that they are excellent optimizers. As Martin puts it, policies make them “passive recipients of someone else’s poverty definition” by fitting them into a framework instead of building a framework around them. The argument, therefore, does not confine itself to amendments and changes specifically. A case in point is established by pitting two policies against the pandemic background. The Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). Aimed at issues with similar genesis, both policies warrant changes in the standard of living of the rural poor. Both policies have had historical significance. Former had been mandated by economists for quite some time before it was materialized in 2013. Latter was a welfare policy that addressed nutrition, natal care, health, and education by establishing Anganwadis. The Center is involved in dealing with adversities in transfer payments via the DBT. In fact, according to National Informatics Centre (NIC), around 2.2 crore transactions were reported on the Government of India’s online fund tracking software Public Financial Management System (PFMS). Evidently, transfer payments are not enough for villages that suffer erratic procurement and seasonal availability of dietary supplements. As a result, problems such as micronutrient deficiency and fortification of food grains were found to be compounded further. Even so, the Anganwadis, generally underfed and grossly understaffed, experienced absenteeism and flouted food procurement in many states. The COVID stimulus package did only so much as to increase the allocation of food grains under such programs but failed to see that basic nutrition economics will break if Anganwadis stop functioning altogether (like they have in many states)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s masterpiece The Shoplifters talks of quiet desperation of unaffordability in Japan. In The Florida Project, Sean Baker powerfully portrays the dismal state of affordable housing in the US. Capernaum by Nadine Labaki is a thumping portrayal of scrounge workers, one that has more depth than some of the books written on the same issue. Amartya Sen pensively wrote about “a profound confusion between famine prevention, which is a simple achievement, and the avoidance of endemic undernourishment and hunger, which is a much more complex task”. These pieces of literature stand tall to the fact that understanding modern-day privilege (or the lack of it) comes with a pre-requisite of understanding the dynamics of being resourceless. It’s the unfreedom that entails a lack of choice. Even so, the limited opportunities for redemption. It is, therefore, an incredible requirement of economic policy-making to carefully tread the tightrope of infallible economics and credible governance.