My latest column in The Deccan Chronicle and The Asian Age
Hunger rings as India dials 2G scam
It is official. India’s mobile boom has a dark side. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) latest report tells us that the national exchequer has been deprived of some `1,76,000 crore due to the rigged auction of 2G mobile-telephone licences in 2008, popularly known as the 2G spectrum scam. At the time of writing, skeletons in various closets continue to tumble out. But disgust at the creaky, leaky, corrupt system notwithstanding, no one has stopped taking calls on the cellphone or wants India’s telecom revolution to end.
Instead of mounting pressure to fix the leak and to ensure that rules are followed, the “leaky state” argument is being made in high decibels to deter the government from taking even baby steps towards addressing another scandal, no less outrageous. This is the scandal of alarming hunger that stalks the country at a time when the economy is on a high growth trajectory. The government is considering proposals which include a Right to Food law. But there is a chorus of voices slamming the idea of additional food subsidy. Critics call it a waste of money. They point out that the public distribution system (PDS) leaks and corrupt middlemen rather than the poor are likely to benefit from such measures. In this connection, Communist Party of India-Marxist’s pragmatist Sitaram Yechury makes an interesting point: To provide 35 kg of rice to every family of India, you require an additional food subsidy of `85,000 crore. In other words, you can achieve food security in India with `85,000 crore. Contrast this with the `1,76,000 crore that has been lost in the 2G spectrum scam, as the CAG reports.
Hunger is not new in India. From time to time, there are pesky figures which remind us where we stand in the hunger stakes despite high economic growth. Just a few weeks ago, the Global Hunger Index brought out by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ranked India 67th among 84 hungry countries. In South Asia, the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women is among the major factors that contribute to a high prevalence of underweight in children under five, the IFPRI report noted.
But while the spotlight on hunger has helped nudge food security up the policy agenda, there is a shameful truth we rarely discuss: even where there is food, it is not distributed equally inside the home. Women across India are bearing the brunt of cost-cutting during these times of harsh food inflation. This shocking state of affairs, reflected in widespread anaemia, is partly to blame for the high numbers of women who die during childbirth, for the millions of low-birth weight children and for deaths of newborns. For proof, take a look at the National Family Health Survey (NFHS). 49.7 per cent of pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 49 were anaemic when NFHS-2 (1998-99) was conducted. That figure shot up to 57.9 per cent during NFHS-3 (2005-06). NFHS-3 also tells us that less than a quarter of women took iron tablets for 90 days when they were pregnant with their last child and just about 50 per cent of women had had at least three antenatal care visits for their last birth. The latest figures from the Registrar General of India point to some reported improvement in the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) or the ratio of the number of maternal deaths per 1,00,000 live births. But even today, India remains one of the maternal death hot spots. The worst states in the MMR stakes are Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — all with MMR above 300.
“We have high food inflation. Pulses are being replaced by cash crops in some parts of the country and are no longer a cheap source of protein. Women across India are teaching their children how to live with hunger”, said Biraj Patnaik, Principal Adviser to the Supreme Court Commissioners on the Right to Food, during a recent talk on “Food Security and Maternal Health in India”.
“It is good that the government is talking about food security but we have to be concerned equally about nutritional security. The two are not the same. Food is not shared equally at home. In millions of households across India, the woman eats last and what is left over. Food also will not translate into nutrition in absence of safe water and sanitation”, pointed out nutritionist Indu Capoor, founder-director of the Centre for Health Education, Training and Nutrition Awareness (Chetna).
So we have a problem at both macro and micro levels. There is an overall shortage of food for the poor in India, because they simply do not have the money to buy enough food in the open market. Then, whatever food there is, is not shared equally between the sexes. Women get the shortest end of the stick in this entire process.
To talk about doing away with the PDS in such a situation because it is corrupt, is really a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The government needs to start a bigger and cleaned-up PDS.