On Monday, the impetus to fix the economic problems of the world’s richest country gained urgency when an annual government report revealed that one in six American households experienced hunger in 2008.
In all, 49 million people “had difficulty putting food on the table at times during the year”, the highest rate ever since so-called food-security surveys started 15 years ago, and an increase of 11.1 per cent over 2007.
The figures were concern enough for President Barack Obama to issue a statement from China during a hectic, much-publicised sweep through Asia. Two days ago, he called the findings “unsettling”. More unsettling: The revelation that 17 million of the 49 million who faced hunger were children.
“This trend was already painfully clear in many communities across our nation, where food-stamp applications are surging and food pantry shelves are emptying,” said Obama. “It is particularly troubling that there were more than 500,000 families in which a child experienced hunger multiple times over the course of the year.”
Obama’s immediate attempt to acknowledge the issue is hard to understand for us in India, inured as we are to hunger and suffering. He talked of hunger — regarded in his country as a Third World problem — at a time when his yes-we-can aura is slipping.
On the day the hunger report was released, about 43 per cent of US voters felt positive about Obama, a fall of 2 per cent since October and in line with a downward trend since June.
It’s hard to compare hunger in the US with hunger in India. A fifth of the Indian population of about 1.1 billion is undernourished, and nearly 300 million people — more than the population of Pakistan, Britain and France combined — go without any food every day.
A day after Obama’s comments on hunger, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a historic apology to 500,000 “forgotten Australians”, abused as children in orphanages and care homes between 1930 and 1970. About 900 of these victims — now middle-aged or older — packed the Australian Parliament as Rudd spoke of this shameful period in Australian history.
“We look back with shame that so many of you were left cold, hungry and alone and with nowhere to hide and nobody, absolutely nobody, to whom to turn,” Rudd said in a nationally televised address. “We look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had none.”
The apology echoed Rudd’s 2008 apology to the so-called Stolen Generation of Aborigines, who were taken from their families to be raised in institutions and White homes under assimilation policies, which ran until the late 1960s. The apology came a day after the British government said Prime Minister Gordon Brown would apologise for child-migrant programmes that sent children as young as three to Australia and other former colonies over 350 years.
Why do we in India find it so hard to acknowledge problems and shameful events?
India’s troubles need public acknowledgement, not to ape an Obama or a Rudd, but to start the process of addressing them.
Our monumental education problems are finally a matter of public debate only because our education minister, Kapil Sibal, started to talk loudly about them. We may agree or disagree with his flood of views, but we are talking; experts are thinking fixes; and we realise that the schools and colleges of unchanging India must now change.
For centuries we did nothing to change our disgraceful caste prejudices, until a certain Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi started talking about them. A lifetime has passed since, and while caste discrimination is still deeply entrenched, it has yielded much ground.
Here are some random issues we do not regard as national problems because no one — well, no one we recognise — talks of them: Hunger, water and electricity shortages, the poor who — like every year — will freeze on pavements across the great northern plains, terrible roads and crumbling pavements.
No, don’t snigger. Don’t tell me “we are like that only”. Don’t tell me to “kindly adjust”. That is why I was happy to see actor Priyanka Chopra align herself with child rights on national television. It’s fine for celebrities to endorse luxury watches and biscuits, but if they take some time to endorse the big issues, India can only benefit.
When we do not speak of our problems, we do not recognise them. That is why many who live in the new India actually believe we are on a par with the West. We are — if you can mentally shut out 600 to 700 million people.
Shutting out events is something we do particularly well in India. That is why we find it so hard to apologise.
Can you imagine what might happen if apologies were offered by: Sonia Gandhi or the Prime Minister to the victims of the 1984 Sikh riots (the 25th anniversary was last month); Narendra Modi to the families of Gujarati Muslims massacred in 2002; the Prime Minister to Kashmiri Muslim families whose loved ones went missing in Kashmir over 20 years; Kashmiri separatist leaders to the Hindu Pandit families who fled their homes; Raj and Uddhav Thackeray to those who have died in their mindless shutdowns and riots.
English writer G.K. Chesterton once said: “The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt.”
It can’t be that hard, can it?