PM Narendra Modi’s repeated insistence on people of India becoming “swanirbhar” meaning independent in every aspect of life and living, sounds hollow when placed next to India’s ranking in world hunger which shows millions of Indians dying of hunger every day with special stress on children.

Is our PM not aware that Governments have a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food? Hunger is not a question of fate. Hunger is the result of human inaction. Few of these hungry people are conscious that the right to food is a human right protected by international law.

The fractional number that might be conscious is too busy struggling from one minute to another, looking for food. The right to food is “the right to have regular, permanent and unobstructed access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, individual and dignified life free from anxiety.”

"The world is not on track to achieve the second Sustainable Development Goal - known as Zero Hunger for short - by 2030. At the current pace, approximately 37 countries will fail even to reach low hunger, as defined by the GHI Severity Scale, by 2030," states the report.

"These projections do not account for the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which may worsen hunger and undernutrition in the near term and affect countries’ trajectories into the future", the report further added.

Let us take a closer look. According to the Global Hunger Index 2020 report, published on October 16, World Food Day, India was ranked 94 out of 107 countries on the Global Health Index (GHI). Neighbouring countries like Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have better scores than India. Sri Lanka is ranked 64, Nepal, 73, Bangladesh is 75, Myanmar is 74 and Pakistan is 88 all of them being immediate neighbours of India.

14% of the population presently suffer from malnutrition. Of these, a large slice comprises children. The schools being closed due to the pandemic for many months along with the subsequent lock-downs have stopped many children from the mid-day meal programmes for seven long months. Mid-day meals in school were launched with the aim to provide food security to children from economically weaker families and increase enrolment in public schools, and are channelled through state governments.

The central government, which only plays a supervisory role, with the states being responsible for implementation of the mid-day meal scheme. This programme was implemented in 2001 through an Indian Supreme Court Directive mandating the introduction of free school lunches in public primary schools.

However, studies show that major problems plague the effective implementation of mid-day meal scheme. Firstly, there are too many layers of government involved in the scheme, resulting in poor information, coordination and monitoring. Secondly, rampant corrupt practices ranging from food procurement to distribution of hot cooked meals among children are discovered from time to time.

According to a report by Anjali Ojha in DNA (July 28, 2013), the mid-day meal tragedy in Bihar, which killed 23 children who ate contaminated cooked food, turned the national spotlight on problems affecting the flagship government scheme which provides lunch to nearly 120 million children in India every day - with lack of monitoring and hygiene, as also huge corruption, discrediting what is called the world's largest school feeding programme.

While reports of insects or lizards being found in the meal keep cropping up, unhygienically cooked and under-nutritious food are the other issues dogging the scheme. The mid-day meal scheme provides children in over 1.2 million government-run schools a hot and nutritious meal every day, which besides encouraging attendance and improving nutritional levels, also helps to arrest dropout rates. Experts say the scheme suffers from structural problems, the biggest being the lack of a proper monitoring mechanism.

So, if this is the scenario, how can one even dream of becoming “swanirbhar” in this country in the near future? Shilai Mandal from Garhbeta in Paschim Midnapur in West Bengal points out that we are a rich country in terms of resources like minerals, water, forest riches, small- and large-scale industries. fertile land and a massive volume of labour – skilled, unskilled, migrant, trained which also leads to sufficient production in food which, if distributed judiciously and democratically, may even leave a surplus.

India is the third-largest grain producer in the world. “Then, why is there so much hunger around? If the pandemic is projected as a cause for this, then Mandal points out at during this period, India has added not less than 15 new millionaires who have added to the list of existing 100-crore names. How and why is this happening even seven decades after we have become “Independent”? Is this gross inequality in the distribution of wealth, resources and income not one of the major reasons for the rise in the Hunger Index in the country?? Asks Mandal.

“Hunger, it is argued, is a problem of distribution: a matter of access to the available global food supply,” writes Robert W. Kates in Ending Hunger: Current Status and Future Prospects (CONSEQUENCES, Vol.2, No.2, 1996.) According to Kates, this supports the case for a nutritionally adequate, primarily vegetarian diet which production today is sufficient to feed 120 per cent of the world’s population. Economists rightly point out that the world has much unused capacity for producing food. If poor countries and poor people had greater purchasing power, they argue, then more food would be produced and would be made available.

In a public lecture titled The Republic of Hunger, on the fiftieth birthday of the martyr Safdar Hashmi organized by SAHMAT in New Delhi on 10 April 2004, Prof. Utsa Patnaik of the Jawaharlal Nehru University revealed horrifying statistics about the politics that backs and boosts hunger in India. From the early 1990s to 2003, said Patnaik, annual per capita foodgrains absorption in India came down to 155 kg. Levels so low were last seen at the beginning of World War II and during the food crisis of the mid-1960s. Of the total fall, more than four-fifths took place between 1998 and 2003.

The GHI states that India has the highest prevalence of wasted children out of the 11 countries with a 'high rate' of child wasting. As per the report, India dipped further in child wasting (low weight for height, under the age of five) parameter with the rate of 17.3 per cent. Earlier, it accounted for 15.1 per cent for the years 2010-14. However, the other three parameters -child stunting with 37.4 per cent, undernourishment with 14 per cent and child mortality with 3.7 per cent --have shown improvement.

This 14 per cent, translates to more than 19 crores of the total population. Swanirbharata, anyone? Or, sab ka vikas? Or swachhata? How can a nation remain clean when there are too many hungry stomachs poised to die of starvation?

Hunger comes in many guises, four of which serve as indices of hunger in compiling global estimates. Starvation, or the near absence of dietary intake, suffered in the course of famines, can be contrasted with undernutrition, which stands for the chronic or seasonal absence of needed food proteins and caloric energy. There is also the hidden hunger of micronutrient deficiencies, of which three dominate – dietary shortages of iron, iodine and Vitamin A. There are nutrient-depleting diseases, in which dietary intakes may not be absorbed, or, are wasted by fever or parasites that are carried in the body. Hunger thus, encompasses not only a shortage of food but also the lack of food of adequate nutritional quality.

CPM leader and economist Sitaram Yechury has suggested that the government take initiatives to distribute the 10,000 crore tons of foodgrains stocked in government godowns be taken out and distributed among the starving population for free. But who is listening?

According to the current report, India has serious levels of hunger as it has secured a score of 27.2 which comes in the 'serious category.' GHI calculates and compares the levels of hunger across the different countries so that it can notify the concerned nation against the alarming situation of 'wasting' or 'hunger' in the country.

Agreed that earlier governments have fared worse so far as levels of hunger by the GHI are concerned. Compared with the 27.2 in 2000, during the NDA rule, the level of hunger was very bad at 38.9 while in 2006, it was 37.5 and in 2012 it was 29.3.

But this seems a myth because placed against a teeming population of 137 crores in 2020, this is hardly an “improvement” on the earlier statistics. In other words, never mind the political party in power, no government seems to even care about its starving millions, about whether they will live or die, or whether they exist at all.

It would perhaps be right to quote from In The Famine Trap, a report published in 2008 by the Ecological Foundation in association with UK Food Group, London which states:

The paradox of plenty, no longer, is confined to the inhospitable terrain of Kalahandi. India too is faced with a Kalahandi Syndrome – food stocks piling up at a time when a third of the world’s 800 million hungry and poor, living in India, do not have the means to purchase it. In addition, the resulting damage to the resource-base, on which were laid the strong foundations of the traditions of agriculture, have been ruinous and threaten the survival of the nation.