A flourishing intellectual cottage industry has grown in India — and across the planet — around the worthy enterprise of measuring and estimating poverty and hunger. Much of the published reams of this debate, to which economists, nutritionists and public planners tirelessly contribute, would appear strangely remote to a person who lives with and battles hunger. She would recognise little in their involved, sophisticated, bitterly contested and often opaque calculus, assumptions, arguments and conclusions. She would not find adequate acknowledgement of the struggles that dispossessed people the world over wage every single day against want and injustice, to feed, clothe and house themselves and the people they love.
The debates would probably seem strangely detached to her from their daily triumphs and defeats, from the profound suffering and powerlessness of watching one’s children cry themselves to sleep on a hungry stomach, from the shame of depending on charity, from moral victories and collapse, from the loneliness of migration, from the helplessness of debt bondage, and from love and longing which is so terrible because it is so hopeless.
There are periodic reports of starvation deaths that briefly divert the media from more pressing news such as of the contests of electoral politics that seem unencumbered by concerns for the poor, fashion contests and beauty pageants, cricket, and sensational crimes. The occasional stories of how the other half starves impel a brief flurry of dusty jeep rides for hasty media penetration into the sleepy countryside with intrusive cameras and accusative interrogation.
What typically follows are bitter and angry denials of starvation by the administration; triumphant condemnation by the political opposition; sensational reports of the sale of a child allegedly for a price less than a bottle of packaged mineral water; and fleeting TV images of gaunt and bewildered adult ‘victims’ cradling skeletal forms of starving babies. And before long the matter is forgotten by all except those who have no option but to continue to live with hunger.
At senior levels of government planning, goal posts are surreptitiously changed to convince the world that India is rapidly vanquishing poverty, justifying even further reduction of the already unconscionably low levels of public investments in food, social security, health care, education, agriculture and housing. Official committees themselves cannot agree on estimates of poverty, which swing wildly from 23 per cent to 40, to 50 to 77 per cent. Economists, nutritionists and planners hotly quarrel about modes of estimating the numbers and levels of hunger and poverty.
Many believe that free markets will ultimately eliminate hunger and want. Solutions that are pressed in governments worldwide to end persisting hunger, usually range from expanding further the reach of international markets and trade, deflationary economic policies cutting back further on public investment for the needs and rights of disadvantaged citizens, and competitive provisioning of public goods like healthcare and education by the private sector. Others promote technical solutions like micro-nutrient fortification, genetic engineering in agriculture or control of populations. But a depleting band of economists and public planners persist in arguing that there is no substitute for large public action, massive State investments in food, agriculture and work, health and education, as well as democratic civic mobilisation for recognition and enforcement of the social and economic rights of disadvantaged people who live with hunger and malnutrition.
Many of these debates are important, but are in constant peril of reducing people living with hunger themselves to statistical ammunition, subjecting both their intense suffering and valiant resistance to the cold economics of costs and benefits. Discussions around poverty and under-nourishment by economists, professionals and planners often portray people living with hunger as helpless, mostly inert, pitiable and passive receptacles of charity and State largesse, and not as active agents with often sturdy spirit and humanity who endure in the most inconceivably difficult circumstances of want and oppression.
It is these debates that lie behind the vastly divergent positions of government and the Congress, and of economists and activists, about what the proposed Food Rights Bill should guarantee to the people of this land. The initial government draft law sought to restrict state responsibility to a truncated Public Distribution System (PDS) for people whom the government estimates to be poor. But others are convinced that the law must create a wide range of obligations for the state to provide food to every child, woman and man who lives with hunger and malnourishment. It is time we asked the opinion of those millions of men, women and children who are forced to sleep hungry every night.
India surges ahead to impatiently claim its long-denied status of a giant economic superpower, with the world’s largest vibrant, talented acquisitive consuming middle class, and confident and predatory Indian business leaders stalking the world for new corporate acquisitions and trophies. We are embarrassed by reminders of a much larger population of people with stagnant or falling living standards, millions of whom struggle daily to strive to feed their families and only sometimes fill their bellies. Inequality without outrage and resistance has always scarred and shamed our country. But until recently at least the poor were around us, in our films, in poetry and literature, in the promises of budget speeches and election slogans, in newspaper reports and television screens. Today they have become invisible. They do not matter anymore. I hope that the proposed food security law can begin to change this.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal