If providing jobs topped the list of promises made by political parties before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, their 2009 manifestoes seem to have gone back to the basics — fighting hunger and ensuring food security.
It’s not unique, though. In 1983, Telegu Desam Party (TDP) founder NT Rama Rao offered rice at Rs 2 per kg and lapped up votes. Last November, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Kumar demonstrated how his subsidised rice scheme, backed by good governance, could bring him back to power.
The reason: Experts say hunger still persists as a serious issue in India. For example, malnutrition still kills about 2.5 million children each year.
Purnima Menon of Interna-tional Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said, “India has now moved into another era with its high economic growth over the past years. But there is a disconnect within.”
This time, the Congress party promised the country’s first food security law, while the Bharatiya Janata Party proposed food coupons, community kitchens and steps to stop diversion of farmlands under cereal cropping “for dubious industrial projects”.
In Orissa, the Biju Janata Dal promised a universal food subsidy scheme. But in Andhra Pradesh, the TDP has taken the cake by promising free salt and Re 1 per kg rice for the poor.
In states like Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, rising food prices in 2008 pushed the state governments to slash prices of essential commodities and invest in a larger food subsidy budget.
The IFPRI Hunger Index released last year estimated that India was home to the world’s largest hungry population—over 200 million, or the combined populations of the UK, France and Germany.
It added that even states experiencing high economic growth, like Maharashtra and Gujarat, reported high hunger levels. “Despite years of robust economic growth, India scored worse than nearly 25 Sub-Saharan African countries and all of South Asia, except Bangladesh,” the report added.
Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh, rubbished the 200 million figure, but conceded “persistent hunger continues”.