By Prakash Kona
The standard Indian response to any criticism is to counter it with vitriolic disapproval. The government’s response to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2022 placing India at 107th position below all our South Asian neighbors with the exception of Afghanistan, is an expected one: “There is no scientific methodology to measure undernourishment like availability of food grains per capita during the period.” If in fact there is no “scientific methodology to measure undernourishment,” how do the members of the government know that the report is not true? If you’re rejecting a statement, it is only fair that you give reasons other than saying that no “scientific methodology” has been followed by the agencies that prepared the GHI report 2022. What kind of a “scientific methodology” do we need in order to measure undernourishment when all it requires is that politicians and bureaucrats go into any of the quarters where the poor live and see what they are eating on a daily basis! Let them and their children eat the same food for a week or a month and let’s see how they endure it.
I am no big fan of reports prepared in Europe and the USA. They never mention the deadly role that neocolonialism plays in perpetuating inequalities in the third world. On one hand, a billionaire like Jeff Bezos needs the support of the political party in power to do business in India; to that extent, he is perfectly okay with the policies initiated by the party no matter how anti-poor and undemocratic they might be. On other hand, The Washington Post (owned by the same Jeff Bezos) is typically critical of what the political party heading the government is doing in India. If Jeff Bezos was cold shouldered for the editorial policies of The Washington Post in 2020 by the Indian government, the reasons are obvious. You cannot be a corporate warlord and a believer in democratic institutions and practices at the same time. Or maybe you can, if the people are foolish enough to ignore the double standards. This is the reason why institutions and organizations of the Global North that are subtly critical of third world governments and policies, while trying to seem neutral, are not always honest in their appraisals.
That however does not mean that the government in India and the people do not use this opportunity to take the GHI report 2022 as a reason to examine the ground reality carefully and do some serious introspection that is long overdue. Merely refusing to open your eyes does not mean that the elephant vanishes from sight or walks out of the room. Every politician, bureaucrat and nationalist Indian must hang their heads in shame whenever they come across a report like this. There is indeed a lot of hunger in India and there are a lot of hungry and poor people too. To say that the quality of the food they consume is abysmal would be an understatement. This is not something we should not be talking about simply because in our media we don’t get to see the grimmer side of what passes for development.
Deep-rooted social and economic inequalities are the reality of Indian life. Class, gender and caste divisions make it impossible for us to reach out to the masses in order to create an egalitarian order. An unequal society is incapable of sharing something as basic as food. You can call it a human right, a social right, a divine right or a natural right; the right to a decent meal is all of them put together and more. It’s a right that I should be able to exercise anywhere and everywhere on this planet or at least in the nation-state that I call India.
I agree that any individual must work in order to be able to buy food. That doesn’t mean that those who are underemployed or unemployed or whose families do not have enough work to do must not have nourishing food. I don’t accept the argument that this will make the poor lazy or that they will be insufficiently motivated to work. Why is that these arguments are never made when it comes to well-to-do Indians who are highly paid for doing complex tasks while garbage-collectors are paid peanuts for work that no one wants to do! Isn’t waste disposal as much of a serious concern as is research in space studies! We want to send a spacecraft to Mars – which is a great thing. But, what about having a clean and green country where common people have access to edible food.
There is no transformation that comes remotely close to empowerment through high-quality food that gives a person the energy to argue and communicate on an equal basis. An undernourished person is barely able to stand up to harassment and intimidation. Unfortunately, we need the poor to labor and do work that no one wants to do only so that there is a section that can aspire, go places and reflect philosophically on the meaning of life!
It has already been noted that hunger and poverty do not exist in a vacuum. They are a part of the vicious cycle where inequality leads to illiteracy and backwardness and the latter in turn reinforces inequality. This impasse can be broken through the intervention of the state. The state has the machinery and the resources to educate and sensitize people to share food and avoid wastage. There is no greater guarantee for human dignity than ensuring that everyone has access to food that builds both the body and the mind.
David Ludden in his book Peasant History in South India speaks of an incident in 1858 that occurred in the South Indian town of Tirunelveli when the high-caste inhabitants opposed the movement of the dead body of a lower-caste Palla, who had died of cholera, through the town streets. The “townspeople closed their shops and crowded into the streets to prevent the Palla’s body from moving out along one side of the temple toward the new street” (189). Ludden further notes, “High-caste residents might have objected with such force to the Palla’s body being moved through their streets for fear that this would set a precedent of allowing even the lowliest folk free access to town center streets, their streets” (190). However, the protest was dealt with an iron hand by the colonial administrators and “at least ten people were killed and many more wounded” (190). Ludden observes, “No similar incident happened again. Custom changed, at one stroke, to accommodate social forces that demanded freer access to town streets than would be customary…” (190) along with the “henceforth accepted premise that the streets belonged to the state” (190).
It is apparent that the colonial state could change things with the use of force because it had the political will to do so. Although in principle I am opposed to the use of force whether by the state or by those who resist it, there are things that the postcolonial state (which is far more legitimate than the colonial state because it enjoys the consent of the majority) can and should do in order to uplift the lives of common people. Active state intervention is essential to create an equal society where people can have access to basic amenities without having to struggle for them. Where the state is subservient to a parallel order dictated by economic interests of the powerful such a change is impossible. We need a state that derives its power from the common masses before we expect any positive intervention aimed at improvement in the lives of the poor.
For crying out loud, in this country we do not even have a national policy on how to deal with stray dogs which have been a menace to common Indians on the street for years, if not decades. We have a law that prevents cruelty to animals. Fine. I’ve no reason to be against stray dogs or laws that protect them. But, what about ordinary masses who have no alternative but to use the streets? Their insecure lives are subjected to further humiliation when they have to deal with dogs on a daily basis. Law-makers and animal lovers do not have to live on the streets or venture anywhere close to them. But, for the poor, who have no choice, to further expose them to danger merely because we subscribe to a vague notion that killing animals is wrong, is unforgivable. What about the indignity and slow death that the poor are subjected to on a regular basis! Does that make their lives less than that of dogs! I mean, seriously!
GHI Report 2022 India: https://www.globalhungerindex.org/india.html
“India Falls To 107 From 101 In Global Hunger Index, Behind Pak, Nepal”: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/india-falls-to-107-from-101-in-hunger-index-behind-pak-nepal-report-3433399
Ludden, David. Peasant History in South India. Princeton University Press, 1985.