MADRAS — Hunger still stalks India. Fifty-five years after the British gave the country its freedom, 200 million Indians — a fifth of the population — still go to bed hungry. What makes this situation even more tragic is the fact that the government plans to export million tons of rice and wheat.

At a time when India’s granaries are literally overflowing (with rodents feasting in some) and the government making grand announcements of surpluses being readied for export, newspapers scream of deaths from starvation in the country’s northern states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and in the eastern state of Orissa. Many children have died over the past three weeks because their families had no money to feed them.

Dying for want of food has long been a sad part of India’s history. Toward the end of British rule in the late 1930s and early 1940s, famines killed thousands of men, women and children. Admittedly, the picture is no longer so bleak, but hunger and starvation are still painful realities in India. Unfortunately, the government glosses over the truth by referring to starvation as “malnutrition.”

There was a time soon after independence in 1947 when Indian politicians refused to use the word “famine.” Instead, they described such situations as “food shortages.”

But no matter what term is used to describe the situation, Indians still starve and die because they are too poor to buy food. They have no work, and despite the government’s much publicized public food-distribution system for the have-nots, millions of impoverished Indians exist on wild roots and herbs and fall prey to preventable diseases.

What is the reason for this suffering? The simplest explanation is that food prices in India are too high. Most households spend 40 percent of their incomes on food.

The existence of food surpluses has done little to correct this anomaly, largely because New Delhi has a distorted food policy. While the poor suffer from inadequate nutrition, the government pampers wealthy wheat and rice farmers through its highly questionable “minimum support price for the grains” program — which not only keeps retail prices artificially high, but also reduces the daily per capita net amount of food available.

The National Institute of Nutrition in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad says that an adult should have 500 grams of cereal products every day, but most citizens cannot afford more than 463 grams. And about 200 million of them cannot afford to buy any grain.

This is a blatant violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which acknowledged that access to sufficient food is a human right. Hunger has been discussed and debated in Rome many times, and numerous pledges have been made. At the last World Food Summit five years ago, the delegates promised to reduce the number of hungry people throughout the world from 815 million to 400 million by 2015. However, this figure was revised to 580 million at this past summer’s World Food Summit. And it could be raised again in the future.

World over, the reasons for hunger vary from genuine food shortages to poor distribution networks to repressive regimes. But none of these factors is a cause in India. It is true that rice and wheat yields have gone down despite the fact that these grains are now being grown on larger areas. Yet even while Indian storehouses are overflowing with food, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s vow to “banish hunger” seems to have hit a wall. There are more hungry mouths to feed than ever, including infants, and recent deaths from starvation are a blot on the prime minister’s government.

And if Vajpayee wants to right a gross wrong, he needs to make hard decisions: Do away with or drastically reduce minimum support prices for essential grains. Do not maintain food stocks in government storehouses beyond the bare necessity. Ensure that the food reaches the needy through the fair-priced public food distribution system, which is currently being abused by the wealthy, who take unfair advantage of its cheaper rates.

It is a tragedy that in a democracy like India, poor people are needlessly dying of starvation.

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