India contributes more hungry people to the world each year than all other countries put together, and despite efforts, new figures suggest that hunger is far from contained - in fact we are worse off than we were more than a decade ago.
According to the Global Hunger Index 2012, recently released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). India's rating was 22.6 in '96, 24.2 in '01 and now stands at 22.9.
About 870 million people across the globe go hungry each day and a fourth of them - more than 200 million - live in India. Of 79 countries, India ranked at a miserable 65, in the 'alarming' category.
We were only slightly better than Bangladesh (68), and worse off than Pakistan (57), China (2) and even certain Sub-Saharan countries.
The report analysed three indices - undernourishment in the population, under-five mortality and underweight children under five. The report comes barely two months before the National Food Security Bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament.
However, member of the National Advisory Council Abhijit Sen, says IFPRI's numbers are misleading.
Conceding that he has not yet seen the report, he says, "The situation is bad but it has been getting better."
The report does mention that India's score is partly based on outdated data. India's only national data on health and nutrition comes from the National Family Health Survey of 2005-06. But, this makes an important case for India's failure in tracking child undernutrition trends.
"How can we hope to solve a major problem like malnutrition if we are not even aware of the extent of the problem?" asks Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the Supreme Court commissioners on the right to food.
Senior research fellow and strategic advisor at IFPRI, Klaus von Grebmer, says, "From 1990 to '96 India was successful to reduce underweight children under 5. From then, there was no improvement."
The IFPRI report also categorically says that India has floundered in improving on the GHI despite strong economic growth.
Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, an ardent proponent of the right to food, shares this view. He cites India's own 'Approach Paper for the 12th Five Year Plan' which emphasises that while GDP grew on an average 8%, poverty alleviation only took place at a miniscule 0.8% per annum.
"India is prospering, but Indians are not," says Aiyar.
The problem, he says is that we have persistently used the same system of governance and programmes - Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), - which have failed to deliver public goods and services before and after economic reforms.
Recently, a report by the office of the commissioners to the SC noted that the Rs. 8,000-crore-a-year Supplementary Nutrition Programme to fight child malnutrition under ICDS suffers from gross violations.
"Increases in central outlays in social sector schemes have had such little impact on development that we remain at 1994 levels. Outlays have increased from 7500 crore in '94 to 200,000 in the current budget, but outcomes are out of sync," says Aiyar.
The solution is far from simple. Indian states have faced the issue with varying success. Manipur and Kerala have been strong in dealing with hunger while states such as Bihar and MP have had a miserable record.
Patnaik says, "We have not invested enough in the ICDS and that there is lack of commitment from the top leadership to bring about reforms."
But NAC's Sen believes that the 12th plan has effectively laid down the path for investment in human development.
For Aiyar, "the solution is not in mindless increase of outlays but in radical change of delivery mechanisms."
Recently appointed chairman of a committee on "leveraging" Panchayati Raj institutions for efficient delivery of public goods and services, he puts the onus on individuals.
He says, "We must restructure central programmes for self-delivery through people's participation."
A dire need for food security
The UPA's national food security bill - a promise made by UPA in 2009 - is still stuck and again expected to come up in the winter session. The bill would provide legal entitlement to subsidised food grains to nearly 68% of Indians.
The bill was introduced in Parliament last year but met with strong opposition.
Supporters of the Right to Food campaign - a civil society initiative to recognise the importance of food as a human right - including Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, CPI-M's Brinda Karat and BJP's Prakash Javadekar, in November 2011 protested the draft of the 'targeted' bill arguing that benefits should be given universally rather than based on the controversial poverty line.
Biraj Patnaik, principal adviser to the SC commissioners on the right to food, says, "The bill in its present form is inadequate. It will deal with the problem of hunger but won't make a significant dent on malnutrition. A positive: it provides maternity entitlements which will have an impact, hopefully, on the low birth weight and maternal health situation."