Republic Day is an occasion for patriotic fervour, what with the customary parade in the capital showcasing military might and cultural diversity, apparently designed to instil a sense of national pride in the citizenry -- although a recent piece on the editorial page of The Times of India (21 January) did suggest that the captains and employees of the information technology industry and Bollywood stars may be more appropriate symbols of the "brand new India," all set to claim its place in the world as a major economic power.

With the Confederation of Indian Industry launching its 'India Everywhere' project at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the same time, aiming to promote the country as "the fastest growing free market democracy," it may appear churlish to point out that the new kid on the global business stage is also a "republic of hunger." About 320 million of its citizens reportedly go to bed without food every night, representing over a third of the estimated 840 million hungry people across the world.

This is not a stale story that belongs to the dark ages before the present golden era of economic liberalisation and globalisation. Indeed, according to economist Utsa Patnaik, in the five years between 1998 and 2003 large sections of the Indian population slid down "towards sharply lowered levels of per capita food grains absorption, levels so low in particular years that they have not been seen for the last half century." Clarifying that this steep and unprecedented fall in food grains absorption was independent of the severe drought of 2002-03, she said it had led to a sharp increase in the numbers of people in hunger, particularly in rural areas, with many of them facing starvation.

This unhappy trend has been confirmed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which estimates that over a fifth of India's population still suffers from chronic hunger and that the number of undernourished people in the country increased substantially in the second half of the 1990s. Tracking the incidence of hunger in India over three reference periods during the course of the decade - 1990-92, 1995-97 and 1999-2001 - a recent FAO report recorded an initial decline from 214.5 million to 194.7 million, before a near total reversal of all gains pushed up the number of the undernourished to 213.7 million.

Man-made disaster

The recent reported increase in the number of Indians suffering from hunger and undernourishment is alarming, especially since the first National Family Health Survey (1992-93) had revealed that India was already one of the most undernourished countries in the world. About half of all Indian children are classified as undernourished, a large percentage of them born with protein deficiency (which affects brain development and learning capacity, among other things). And the 50th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS 1993-94) had established that there was no food security system worth the name in this our land.

The recent reported increase in the number of Indians suffering from hunger and undernourishment is alarming, especially since the first National Family Health Survey (1992-93) had revealed that India was already one of the most undernourished countries in the world.

 •  Hunger amidst plenty
 •  Malnutrition and the media

Catchy slogans like India Shining, India Rising and, now, India Everywhere ring somewhat hollow when eminent economists like Patnaik and Amartya Sen affirm that India's record on the hunger front is not very different from and, in some ways, even worse than that of the popular global icon of extreme deprivation, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). As Patnaik put it, "A large segment of the rural masses in India ... have been already reduced to the nutritional status of Sub-Saharan Africa." On the basis of data from the NSS (1999-2000) on calorie intake, she estimated that about 40 per cent of the rural population was at the low absorption level of the SSA average. According to Sen, "Estimates of general undernourishment - what is sometimes called protein-energy malnutrition - are nearly twice as high in India as in Sub-Saharan Africa."

If this seems unbelievable, the shocking findings of a recent survey on hunger in the Adivasi areas of Rajasthan and Jharkhand may bring home the unpalatable truth. Ninety nine per cent of the 1000 Adivasi households from 40 villages in the two states, who comprised the total sample, experienced chronic hunger (unable to get two square meals, or at least one square meal and one poor/partial meal, on even one day in the week prior to the survey), according to the Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS), which released its report on the Political Economy of Hunger in Adivasi Areas in October 2005.

A quarter of these households (25.2 per cent) had faced semi-starvation (surviving on just one distress meal or one poor/partial meal per day) during the week before the survey, almost as many (24.1 per cent) had lived in conditions of semi-starvation during the previous month, and semi-starvation was the lot of almost a third (32.6 per cent) of the sample during the previous year. In fact, over 99 per cent of the tribal population surveyed had experienced various levels of endemic hunger and food insecurity throughout the entire preceding year. Of the 500 households surveyed in Rajasthan, not a single one had secured two square meals during the whole of the previous year.

With over 86 per cent of these Adivasi households suffering from severe protein deficiency, they are extremely vulnerable to opportunistic diseases. In fact, severe protein deficiency is believed to be responsible for the very high infant mortality rate in tribal areas, which has assumed alarming proportions in many parts of the country. Even in a relatively prosperous state like Maharashtra, the state government admitted to the High Court that 2814 children, mainly from tribal areas, had died of starvation between January and July 2005. And this is in a country currently witnessing a spurt in the availability and sale of over 200 brands of protein supplements, used mainly for cosmetic body building purposes.

According to the CEFS study, although about three quarters of the combined sample across both states did have ration cards, almost half the households in Jharkhand did not possess them. While about half the households with ration cards had BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards entitling them to extra low-cost rations, less than ten per cent of those were getting the full quota due to them. The primary reason for their inability to access their legitimate share of food grains was, apparently, the refusal of suppliers within the Public Distribution System (PDS) to sell them the right quantity.

To make matters worse, many of the other official programmes and schemes meant to alleviate hunger and poverty were clearly not reaching the most needy: over 90 per cent of the surveyed households had not benefited from the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), more than three quarters (78.77 per cent) had not benefited from the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and over three quarters (76.5 per cent) had not benefited from the Food for Work programme. Less than one per cent had benefited from the Sampoorna Gramin Rojgar Yojana (SGRY - the primary objective of which is to provide additional and supplementary wage employment to improve food security and nutritional levels in rural areas) and just over one per cent had enjoyed the benefits of old age pension. Even more sobering is the fact that the overwhelming majority of survey respondents (90 per cent) said that their food security had actually declined over the past 25 years.

Hidden crisis

The proportion of Indians facing food insecurity is higher than the proportion defined as being income-poor or below the official poverty line. According to economist Madhura Swaminathan, while around 37 per cent of rural households were acknowledged as below the poverty line in 1993-94, 80 per cent of households showed a calorie deficit during that period. There seems no denying the fact that chronic hunger persists on a massive scale in the country even while the government spends millions of rupees in vain efforts to maintain "surplus" stocks in overflowing granaries and exports "excess" grain at highly subsidised prices.

Despite the magnitude and intensity of the problem of endemic hunger, it remains at best on the margins of policy planning, public action and intellectual discourse, not to mention media coverage. According to economist Jean Dreze, "The most startling aspect of the nutrition situation in India is that it is not much of an issue in public debates and electoral politics." In a December 2003 article in India Together, he illustrated this neglect through a review of the editorial page of The Hindu: "... Over a period of six months (January to June 2000), it was found that health, nutrition, education, poverty, gender, human rights and related social issues combined accounted for barely 30 out of 300 (opinion) articles. Among these 300 articles, not one dealt with health or nutrition."

Scrutiny of the six English dailies published from Bangalore (four of them national) over the ten days leading up to Republic Day this year yielded only a few items providing at least a glimpse of the widespread problem of hunger, arguably the most serious challenge currently facing the country, alongside the related one of poverty. On 24 January The Asian Age (AA) carried a story about a woman who had killed herself and her four-year-old son in Muzaffarpur district, Bihar, after fighting starvation for several months. And on 21 January Vijay Times (VT) published a report on the "Kisan Kidney Sale Centre" set up by desperate farmers in Maharashtra to draw attention to their inability to feed their families on account of crop failure and debt.

The most common references to food in the Bangalore press during this period were clearly of, by and for the elite, taking the form of restaurant reviews and promotions, reports on food festivals and related events, news about the launch of a cookery book, advice on diet and nutrition, research findings relating to food and health, consumer information, and of course, recipes.
  •  Right to Food campaign
  •  CEFS, New Delhi
An op-ed page piece in Deccan Herald (DH) on 17 January, headlined "Making education more important than a meal," referred in passing to the fact that the Aksharadasoha or Noon Meals Programme introduced in 2003 (thanks to a Supreme Court directive) was the single most important reason for the significant decline in the school drop out rate in Karnataka, with the simple hot meal now being provided serving as the main incentive for regular attendance. And a 21 January article by economist L.C. Jain in AA discussed the importance of the grain bank set up by a gram panchayat in Gadag district, Karnataka, in ensuring that no one in the village goes hungry.

The most common references to food in the Bangalore press during this period were clearly of, by and for the elite, taking the form of restaurant reviews and promotions, reports on food festivals and related events (such as a lunch at a five-star hotel to promote vegetarianism), news about the launch of a cookery book, advice on diet and nutrition (e.g., "Amla works wonders on your health," "Healthy diet for healthy hair"), research findings relating to food and health (e.g., "Chocolates good for heart," "Wine & cheese not best match"), consumer information (on the results of tests on brands of potato and banana chips) and, of course, recipes (often sourced from chefs in expensive hotels and restaurants).

There were also several missed opportunities. Among them were reports on the procurement price for tuvar (toor) dal in Karnataka and on paddy procurement in Kerala, as well as an editorial on food subsidies; a report on the setting up of 10,000 new PDS shops in Karnataka and an edit on the survey to identify BPL families in the state; a report on farmers being asked (by a minister, of course) to grow more cash crops, including flowers; and a report on the drought in Kenya that had put millions at risk while "surplus" food was being exported from the country (a situation mirrored in India over the past few years). All these developments are likely to have a direct impact on people's access to food, particularly among the poor. However, neither the reports nor the editorials reflected any awareness of how these events and processes might affect the hunger situation in the country; nor did they attempt to view or present them from that perspective.

On the other hand, there were two detailed reports on the elaborate and extravagant food arrangements made for the thousands of delegates attending the three-day plenary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in Hyderabad, one of them headlined, "Rich repast awaits VVIPs." The party president's reported admonitions about avoiding ostentation and embracing austerity obviously fell on deaf ears as 1000 cooks produced multi-course meals featuring "a judicious mix of north and south Indian, vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes" to be served to delegates in a dozen food courts.

The press by and large failed to pick up on the irony when, in the midst of this plenty, the Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, spoke about the controversial issue of food subsidies for BPL families. According to him the government had not increased the price of rice and wheat for such families but only "adjusted the quantity" marginally.

Yet, according to economist Jayati Ghosh, any "adjustment" that would affect the amount of subsidised rice and wheat available to vulnerable populations through the PDS and the Antyodaya Anna Yojan scheme would undermine one of the most basic requirements for survival: access to adequate nutrition. "Reduction of the already small amounts available under PDS for the below the poverty line households (usually 35 kg a month) and Antyodaya Anna Yojana households (usually 25 kg a month) will dramatically weaken what is already a very fragile food balance," she warned. "It may push many more people into semi-starvation or open starvation, as well as have a devastating effect on increasing nutritional deficiencies that have major effects on development. It is completely the opposite of what was promised in terms of more food security for the vulnerable."

Starvation trap

Of course, the media have traditionally played an important watchdog role by highlighting instances of death by starvation, sale of children and other symptoms of extreme distress during particularly perilous periods, thereby compelling the government of the day to pay attention and take action. If Kalahandi became a household name during the 1980s, it was primarily because the media woke the country up to the continuing reality of deadly starvation.

However, as journalist P. Sainath has pointed out, "... The emphasis on 'starvation deaths' to the exclusion of all else is damaging. Widespread hunger is a much larger issue ... An exclusive focus on 'starvation deaths' - disconnected from the larger canvas - seems to imply this: if they don't die, everything's all right ..."

There are, happily, some signs of change in the right direction, thanks to a combination of more strategic activism and some journalistic initiative. According to Jean Dreze, a prime mover of the Right to Food campaign (an informal but proactive network of organisations and individuals who believe that everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and under-nutrition), "Media coverage of hunger and related issues has considerably increased during the last couple of years, and not just because of the drought. Also, there is a useful shift of attention from starvation deaths to chronic hunger, which is absolutely essential if the problem of endemic under-nutrition in India is to be tackled with adequate resolve. I am not suggesting that this surge of media interest in hunger-related issues is due to the Right to Food campaign alone, but I do think that the campaign has contributed to it. In all media outfits, there are committed and open-minded journalists who respond positively when they are presented with engaging material on social issues."

CEFS director Parshuram Rai also believes that the media played a major role in the uncommonly active response of politicians and bureaucrats in both Rajasthan and Jharkhand, as well as in the central government, to their recent study on hunger in Adivasi areas. The study report was extensively covered in the media, especially in the two states but also nationally.

Unfortunately, however, thanks to the growing tendency to fragment news geographically, reports about important events and processes taking place in one part of the country are not always carried in newspaper editions in other places despite their universal relevance. While developments and controversies concerning celebrities and "people like us" across the country and the world are frequently localised through follow-up and/or "reaction" stories, critical issues such as the food crisis among Adivasis seldom prompt media investigations into the situation among similar communities in different places.

"An exclusive focus on 'starvation deaths' - disconnected from the larger canvas - seems to imply this: 'if they don't die, everything's all right'".

- P Sainath

 •  It's the policy, stupid
 •  Can media catalyse development?
 •  Concerned or not, don't look away

In any case, hunger and malnutrition do not receive the kind of media attention that conflicts and disasters (not to mention political shenanigans) do, although they are equally - if not more -- catastrophic. According to the World Food Programme, hunger and related diseases claim nine times as many lives as war or natural disaster, but "these people die quietly in communities devastated by poverty, without drawing international media coverage." As James T. Morris, WFP executive director, put it last year, "The chronic hunger and malnutrition that afflicts 300 million children worldwide does not create the dramatic media coverage of a tsunami, but it causes far greater suffering. We cannot afford to lose sight of that fact. This too is an emergency."

The fact that the media can make a difference even on the ground is clear from the experience of a group of journalists in Andhra Pradesh, who were moved enough by the plight of hungry people in the state to start a gruel centre in Mahbubnagar district, initially running it with their own contributions as well as collections from colleagues in various media houses. Soon members of the public came forward to support the effort. According to one person assisting at the centre, "If members of the public get to know what's happening, they do want to help." In other words, as Sainath puts it, "If the media do their job, the public will respond."

According to Amartya Sen, "Given our democratic system, nothing is as important as clear-headed public discussions of the causes of deprivation and the possibility of successful public intervention. Public action includes not only what is done for the public by the state, but also what is done by the public for itself. It includes what people can do by demanding remedial action and through making governments accountable ... The lives and well-being of hundreds of millions of people will depend on the extent to which our public discussion can be broadened and made more informed."

The media are uniquely placed to catalyse and nurture public discussion and action on hunger. For starters, maybe the media could go beyond tracking the stock market, the weather and pollution levels (including pollen count) and introduce a daily index of hunger in the republic. And, now that the pomp and ceremony of Republic Day are over, perhaps it is time to seek answers to these questions posed by social activist Aruna Roy, closely associated with the popular movements to ensure people's rights to information, food and employment (which are, of course, inextricably linked): If everything in a democracy is for people, then why are they still hungry? And why are we still talking about freedom from hunger?