By Gaurav Bhattacharya
In a politically-motivated economy like India, it is unimaginable that there are close to a million underfed workers. This workforce stays below the worst indicators of hunger and poverty. India has just completed 15 years of a liberalized economy that opened its doors to foreign direct investments and faster market reforms. This era of reforms has been synonymous with an increasingly unequal economy. It is characterized by massive effects of market fundamentalism. This is particularly in the case of agricultural producers, who constitute the largest part of the Indian workforce. Understanding the agrarian crisis context in India is a challenge. This is because the marginalization debate goes far beyond just the wealth indicators.
Failure of welfare schemes
In India’s pluralistic setting, hunger and starvation are predominantly consequences of massive inequalities and marginalization.
Grain poverty among the rural poor in India has never been due to the shortage of food. The reason for it is actually the lack of political will and biases in the welfare schemes.
The public distribution system (PDS) is responsible for providing subsidised ration to the poor through the fair price shops. It shows almost sixty percent exclusion errors in delivery and distribution of ration. This implies that only thirty percent of the actual rural poor get their entitled ration. Such a welfare model then points to the question of whether the government’s agenda is pro-poor or not.
Why universal schemes do not work
The National Food Security Act (NFSA), a universal scheme to assure grain security to all household especially the most vulnerable ones, was introduced in 2013. A recent public petition filed in the Supreme Court inquired on the status of NFSA implementation. It found that only nine state governments in India had effectively implemented the NFSA. Other states were suffering massive leakages from procurement of grains till delivery.
It is imperative to understand the policy perspective behind a universal scheme like NFSA, especially in the context of the state governance models in India. Certain states have more rural poverty than the national average. It is impossible to have a universal welfare agenda when states have diverse multidimensional poverty parameters. Highlighting the NFSA here, it is important that the ruling government should transfer more decisive powers to the states. Introducing food security schemes that match the vulnerability criteria of different communities in each state should be the target.
Skewed measures, unreliable data
The central estimates of identifying rural poverty in India do not reflect on the worsening situation of chronic hunger and food insecurity. The government’s methods suffer a major bias of categorising poverty according to a universal poverty bracket. This does not include the parameters of average grain purchases made by a household. There is hardly any central data that recognises such a bias.
In fact, there is a significant shortage of data that comments on the nutritional parameters of a household comparing intra-household data on hunger with nutrient deprivation. Additionally, such a method is not inclusive of a larger community that suffers from entitlement failures and access denials. These methods also comment on a democratic government’s ability to accept the consequences of the abject poverty and hunger among its marginalised populations.
A state of apathy
In the latest Global Hunger Index survey, India was yet again labelled as one of the most food insecure nations.
At present, there are multiple starving belts in India. Here, communities stay in prolonged chronic hunger state with very negligible chances of elevating from such apathy. Such communities also bear the burden of being trapped in an informal economy. This is accompanied by higher rates of migration and occupational hazards.
The wealth-wage distribution map of India depicts a very poor picture of resource allocation and distribution. It is undoubtedly an economy that suffers from the paradox of plenty.
Several governments in India with their pro-poor campaigns have advocated that only an increase in growth can lift the masses out of hunger and poverty. It is yet to be known whether this growth is related to the increasing purchasing power of the people or to achieving development goals. Rapid economic growth is a numerical myth. It is not proportionate in eliminating poverty or increasing the quality of life. The complex idea of a welfare state and the government’s will to portray the citizens’ grievances need to be studied further. In a nation where millions sleep hungry, the pathway to development has to shift from just growth and GDP to equality and progress.
Gaurav Bhattacharya is a Rural Economist at the University of Oxford.
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