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Hunger and riches in 'incredible India'

A national daily presented the other day two contrasting pictures of India. On its front page were the findings of a research indicating the extent of hunger and malnourishment in the country and in one of the inside pages was a report on the explosion on its roads with millions of private vehicles causing traffic jams in its urban centres.

One wonders whether these contrasting pictures in a single edition of a daily have caught the attention of those who frame and implement the country’s economic policies. They show, if anything, the growing economic inequality in the country, which can directly be attributed to the policies pursued since economic liberalisation. The government has taken some initiatives to deal with the pervasive hunger and malnutrition but the measures that have been taken seem to have failed to yield the desired results.

The daily cited the data collected by researchers of Global Hunger Index (GHI), a multi-dimensional statistical tool that was adopted and further developed by International Food Policy Research Institute, that reveal India has 213 million hungry and malnourished people. At the same time, it reported that the Food & Agricultural Organisation, a specialised agency of the United Nations, puts the figure at 230 million using, as it does, standard calorie intake formula for measuring adequacy of food. Since the GHI’s hunger index is based on a broader formula, its figures are marginally lower. The shameful inescapable fact, however, is that more than one-fifth of the country’s population suffers from hunger. Worse, the country hosts the largest number of hungry people in the world – about a quarter of world’s 820 million.  The dismal statistics reveal that 21% of population is undernourished, nearly 45% of under-5 children underweight and 7% of them dying before they reach the age of 5. India is thus one of the most hunger-ridden countries – worse than even Sudan, North Korea, Nepal and Pakistan and better than only the Sub-Saharan countries of Congo, Chad, Burundi.

The report also cites the findings of the National Family and Health Survey carried out in 2004-05 according to which 23% of married men, 52% of married women and 72% of infants were anemic. The daily further reports that “global research has now firmly established that depriving the foetus of essential nutrients – as will happen in an under-nourished pregnant woman – seals the fate of the baby once it is born” making him susceptible to diseases, physical and mental retardation. So continuing to allow people to go hungry and malnourished is not just misery for them but also putting at stake the country’s future generations. It’s, therefore, time the government sat up, took notice and shook off its lassitude.

The other picture presents a vastly different view – that of the other side of the country’s economic spectrum. It displays the progressively increasing number of cars on the roads of urban India that result in almost daily traffic jams in not only metros but also in tier-II and tier-III towns. With a car density of only 15 per thousand (in 2006) things on the urban roads are bad enough. One wonders what will be the shape of things if this density becomes 100 per thousand. Delhi is reported to have already reached that density and its citizens are paying for it by way of huge, long drawn-out traffic snarls on a regular basis. Despite the rising inconveniences of the commuting public car makers are bullish about the Indian car market. Its phenomenal growth shows hardly any signs of abating.

Acquisition of a car today depends not so much on necessity as on the rising aspiration of the India’s middle classes, so much so that everybody from a petty trader to an office personal assistant acquires a four-wheeler. Perhaps, of greater interest is that of late the country’s biggest car manufacturer, Suzuki, has discontinued manufacture of the basic entry model with which it launched its operations in India. It now puts out models that are more sophisticated to cater to a discerning market that has since become a place of ruthless competition. It is now a far cry from the pre-liberalisation days when only three manufacturers monopolised the market and the number of vehicles produced was in mere thousands. Today about two dozen manufacturers are jostling to grab a piece of the ever-enlarging cake.  During the last financial year as many as 2.5 million cars were sold in the country. The market is so lively that even the European and British luxury brands have set up shop here.

This apart the growing affluence of the middle classes is reflected by massive spreads in the newspapers of ads for high-end housing. Even prestigious foreign journals, such as The Economist and Time are used to entice NRIs and PIOs to buy what is on offer in India in the shape of luxuriously appointed houses and apartments (some even with private gardens) in gated complexes. In fact, gated complexes are proliferating all over the country around urban centres on farm lands and are snapped up by businessmen, industrialists, politicians, foreign returnees and the corrupt chasing, as they are, the Indian version of their “American Dream”.

The remarkable co-existence of abject poverty and growing affluence of the middle and upper classes made Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, wonder about India’s future. Finding no clear roadmap for “where India is going today” he asked, “Does it see itself evolving like the US where even the middle class has not been sharing gains of the growth? Where the rich live in gated communities waited upon by the vast majority of the poor who earn in a lifetime but a fraction of what they receive in an hour?”

Various measures taken by the government for poverty alleviation, some of them in mission mode, have not yielded the results that were expected. This is amply testified by the statistics, particularly in the areas of poverty, nutrition and education. The reasons could be pervasive corruption and/or lack of governance. It is felt, while the rural missions could continue with better inspection and monitoring, the government could, perhaps  try, in addition, the world’s favourite new anti-poverty device, the conditional cash transfer programmes (CCTP). Under these programmes governments give stipend and food to the poorest if they meet certain conditions, like sending children to schools or vaccinating the babies. These programmes have spread far and wide as they cut poverty, improve income distribution and help the next generation. Rules-based and generally uncorrupted, CCTP has benefited a number of countries in Latin America and Africa as it is good at providing what rural people lack: food, water, primary schools and simple health care. And, yet the key element for its success, as in several other missions, would be good governance.

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