Let us face it. Whether we agree or not, the biggest challenge the country continues to be confronted with is removing poverty and hunger. After all, saddled with a large population of the world’s hungry, India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ – recalling the words of Jawaharlal Nehru – still continues to haunt the relatively young nation.
As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, and looks ahead to the next 25 years to usher in an era of prosperity and fulfillment, ‘poverty’ and ‘hunger’ are the two words that I find conspicuously missing from the public discourse. While reams of newsprint have been rolled out on the significant achievements made in the first 75 years, and point to great expectations in the amrit kaal period ahead – meaning the next 25 years before India completes a century of Independence – removing hunger and poverty finds scant mention.
Whatever be the reasons, I am hoping that the political leadership will take on the challenge to achieve a ‘Zero Hunger’ status in the next 25 years. Given that hunger is a reflection of acute poverty, policy planning should aim at making history. If hunger (and hidden hunger) disappears, poverty too would go.
Knowing that India stands at a lowly 101 among 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2021, the challenge before us looks insurmountable but by all means is doable. If we move beyond the debate on questioning the methodology, India harbors the dubious distinction of being a country – with High Networth Individuals (HNI) having a combined wealth equal to 58 per cent of country’s GDP, and at the same time having 189.2 million people or 14 per cent of the population officially categorized as undernourished by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Unofficially the number of hungry may still be more, but this in any case includes India’s top ranking in child wasting, which means acute under-nutrition among children below the age of five.
It was in 2012, the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the Zero Hunger Challenge. Goal 2 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to end global hunger by 2030, but it is still far away from the prescribed goal. Like the earlier Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the UN may further postpone the date or come up with a new set of goals, but I don’t think India can afford to delay it any further. After all, for the past 75 years, with a vibrant democracy, and with a still higher economic growth, hunger has continued to grow.
The reason is simple. The Trickle Down theory that the World Bank/IMF and the neo-liberal economists had pursued all these years had failed to address hunger and malnutrition. Despite the US President Joe Biden publicly acknowledging that Trickle Down theory was a failure and his administration would now aim at building up from the bottom and the middle; which means the bottom of the pyramid but even now the economic policies being prescribed by the financial institutes and credit rating agencies continue with the same outdated frame work. Writing in The Hindustan Times (Aug 11, 2022) Janmejaya Singh puts it more succinctly when he divides the Indian political demography into three parts. It tells us how the income of a smaller percentage has grown exponentially, while the middle class continues to chug along. It is the majority population that continues to slog, struggling to provide two square meals a day.
Accordingly, the three parts he has divided India into are based on per capita income. Using the purchasing power parity (PPP) norms, he says there is a Europe of about 50 million people with a per capita of $45,000 per annum; an Indonesia of 425 million people (double the size of Indonesia) with a per capita income of $9,500 per annum; and the remaining 900 million people he clubs it to equate a sub-Saharan Africa with a per capita income of $ 3,300 per annum, including about 300 million people whose income is even below that of sub-Sahara.
This composition gives us a clearer picture of the India that presently exists. Read this in conjunction with the inequality report that the international charity Oxfam brings out year after year, what has emerged crystal clear is that the economic policies the world follow are so designed that it helps the top 1 per cent to amass still more wealth. Instead of the income trickling down from the top to the bottom, the global economic design is in reality based on sucking wealth from the bottom to the top. At the same time, the same outdated economic growth model that uses the GDP matrix as an index of growth has brought the world to a tripping point. The higher the greenhouse gas emissions, the higher is the economic growth. This has to change.
For 75 years, India too followed the same economic design that made the rich become super-rich while the majority continued to somehow survive against all odds. With the GDP-based economic growth design having failed to lift two-thirds of the population from a level that some equate with sub-Saharan Africa, and knowing that even those who cross over the poverty line are vulnerable to any set-back that pushes them back, India has a daunting task at hand. But at the same time, India has the capability to go for a turnaround and conclusively demonstrate that another world is possible.
This primarily calls for a reversal in economic thinking. Instead of relying on an outdated trickle down prescription, the time has come when India needs to stand tall and shift focus to launching a direct assault on removing hunger. Unlike all the talk of doubling farmers’ income, it needs to make a sincere effort to lift the people languishing at the lower end of the economic ladder. Whether we like it or not, the reverse economic dynamics will only be successful provided the emphasis is on rebuilding agriculture and reviving the rural economy. This will be met by resistance from the dominant class of economists and the media, but I am sure a visionary political leadership will demonstrate enough courage to look beyond into the future.
Given that 70 per cent of the rural households are dependent on agriculture, there is no economic rationale to facilitate large scale migration from the rural to the urban areas. This is an outdated economic thought, and needs to be replaced with fresh economic thinking that meets the requirements of the 21st century. The focus should not be on expanding cities, but on reviving agriculture that can put a stop to unnecessary migration into the cities. Revitalizing agriculture therefore holds the key to not only making the countryside prosperous, but also on removing poverty and hunger.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)