Why Are We Unable to Mitigate Hunger When We Are Producing More Food than Ever?

To solve the problem of chronic hunger, we need to rethink our understanding of hunger and how we address it. 


Despite the fact that India’s score in the Global Hunger Index has fallen to 31.1 from 38.8 between 2000 and 2018, the issue of hunger is often relegated to the background. India's rank in the Global Hunger Index has also fallen to 103 (ranked out of 119 countries). In terms of policy, hunger, as an issue, is not dealt with directly, and with urgency. Instead, it is kept under the larger purview of economic development which expects that wealth will percolate to solve the problem of hunger. This formulation makes a number of incorrect assumptions about the relationship between hunger and other social structures. It is, at best, an indirect method that does nothing to immediately address the alarming issue of hunger that India is facing at present.

In this reading list, we look at the ways in which hunger has been conceptualised and dealt with in India.

1) How is Hunger and Nutrition Understood in India?

When the Food Security Bill was being debated in Parliament, there was a need to conceptualise hunger and malnutrition in such a way that would enable the estimation of entitlements that would be made available by the government. In this context, Anita Rampal, Harsh Mander’s 2013 article tried to understand the “unconscionable reality” of those who grapple with critical hunger to fill the gaps in the discourse around hunger. As part of their study, they looked at the theme of food and hunger in the lives of young children and how it formed an interface to their understanding their community and place in society.

“Natural and intimate narratives of food and hunger, reflecting the lives of a majority of children, are generally absent from the discourse of education. What can be found, instead, are clinical and insensitive descriptions of what constitutes a healthy diet, often illustrated with visuals of food far beyond the reach of most children.”

2) Is Poverty the Primary Factor Responsible for Food Insecurity?

Contrary to the popularly held belief that food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, Debarshi Das and Deepankar Basu have found that there is a growing divergence in the relationship between poverty and hunger in India. According to them, India is currently experiencing a “food-budget squeeze” owing to shrinking social expenditure by the government. This makes the urban and rural poor dependent on private entities for essential services like education and transportation, which are likely to be more expensive. Consequently, the portion of income that can be spent on food also shrinks.

“The findings of our study suggest that rather than being a matter of choice, the poor have been increasingly forced to spend more on non-food essential items such as education, healthcare, transportation, fuel and lighting. The share of monthly expenditure devoted to these items has increased at such a pace that it has absorbed all the increase in real income over the past three decades. This has led to a “food budget squeeze”, which has meant relatively stagnant real food expenditure over the last two decades. Several factors have led to or compounded the effects of the food budget squeeze.”

3) Who Suffers the Most Because of Hunger?

It is quite evident now that women are the worst affected by hunger because the patriarchal structures of families in India teach them to go hungry, when food is scarce. Anita Rampal and Harsh Mander’s article mentioned in the previous section dedicates a section to study the social structures that compel women to live with starvation, based on ethnographic research. Complicating the scenario further, Leela Sami’s 2002 article explores the intersections of caste and gender to try and understand which groups are the most vulnerable to starvation deaths. From the case studies of two devastating famines in the 19th century, she found that female life chances are relatively better in South India as compared to North India.

“It is difficult to generalise any one reason for less or more discrimination against girls or women without reference to local and regional histories.Yet, the differences in female survival, and by inference, the intra-household distribution of hunger, are most clearly marked between the brahmin groups and the agricultural labour castes in Madras, on the one hand. But it also appears that the dry districts with their low concentration of brahmins and preponderance of successful trading groups were more adverse to female life than were the wet districts. This would foreclose any easy conclusion that gender discrimination stems entirely from brahmanical patriarchy. Yet, it does not contradict the theory that discrimination against girls with a view to limit female life chances (including but not restricted to infanticide) is a part of a process of consolidation of caste control and dominance over political, economic and symbolic resources within a particular economic and historical formation.”

4) Why Has India’s Rank Deteriorated in the Global Hunger Index?

Between 2008 and 2014, India’s position on the Global Hunger Index seemed to have been improving. Thereafter, India’s position began to deteriorate again. Neetu Choudhary explains that India’s rank fell from 2016 because from 2015, the conception of malnutrition was reformulated. New parameters were introduced to expand what is understood as hunger to include stunting and wasting in children, because of which a more accurate perception of the extent of the problem could be estimated.

“Given that malnutrition is a multidimensional phenomenon (UNICEF 1994), the revised GHI formula is able to depict a relatively truer state of hunger in countries across the globe. Inclusion of stunting ensures consideration of rigid cultural factors, while that of wasting represents aspects of diet quality as well. Also, stunting is an indicator of long-term growth failure, and therefore, must be accounted for in any analysis of potential threat a given level of child malnutrition poses for a country. This is one of the key reasons the sustainable development agenda of the United Nations associate bodies display primary concern towards stunting.”

5) How Do We Address the Problem of Hunger?

Despite the fact that the rate of global food production has been consistently higher than the rate of population growth, there is a persistent and pervasive crisis when it comes to food security. A recent editorial in EPW  suggests that hunger can only be dealt with by, “carrying out policies of income redistribution, which respond to objectives of social justice rather than economic efficiency as perceived by neo-liberalism.” Analysing data on a global scale, Praveen Jha and Nilachala Acharya have argued that a substantial push in public provisioning towards social protection might go a long way in ensuring food security.

“In most developing countries one of the biggest issues, with respect to public provisioning towards social protection, to address hunger and food insecurity is organically connected with that of adequate “fiscal” or “expenditure” space. Contrary to the view that countries with low GDP cannot create such a space, we would argue that even at low levels of income it is possible to mobilise adequate resources for the provisioning of social protection. Neither conceptually nor historically, there is no reason to believe that a country needs to wait to reach relatively high levels of per capita income before it can make adequate progress in this regard, even though, higher income of course helps in doing so.”  

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An earlier version of this article only mentioned India's rank in the Global Hunger Index. It has been amended with information about India's score as measured by the Global Hunger Index as well. 

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