Hunger is only one sign of India falling

The government is understandably upset with India’s poor standing in the ‘2021 Global Hunger Index’ and has begun an exercise to discredit the report and its findings. The official story that India is shining doesn’t fit the ugly fact that people have been severely hit by Covid-19 and related restrictions in India, which is also the nation with the highest child-wasting (low weight for height, reflecting undernourishment) rate worldwide, to quote the 60-page, peer-reviewed report.  The report produced by Deutsche Welthungerhilfe e. V., Germany and Concern Worldwide, Ireland, (both noted aid organisations in their respective countries), places India’s global hunger index rank in the world at 101, closer to the bottom of the heap of 116 nations ranked, and well behind Pakistan at rank 92, Bangladesh at rank 76, and Myanmar at rank 71. 

It is not the picture of India on a path of sustainable growth

In the divisive political climate of India, the issue is already relegated to political football status, and will soon be forgotten.  It will be buried by an official propaganda machine that knows how to digress and divert attention, and an opposition that will want to score points. Both do disservice to the condition of the poor, particularly children of India, where admittedly and on official count, malnutrition is a contributory factor in 50% of child deaths across the nation.

These are complex and interconnected causes that won’t go away in a hurry though they can get worse very soon. Yet, the numbers on the hunger index tell the story of India that is right now so caught up in the glorification and celebration of its imagined stardom that there is not much time to look to the fires that are burning in our backyard.

India’s child mortality rate is the non-hearing of the voices and cries of children and mothers and families who have been unable to similarly ask for their basic rights.

The report also serves to highlight a longer-running theme of two nations that don’t have much to do with each other, presented often as Bharat versus India. This is the divide between the rural and the urban, or the gap between the farmers, blue-collar and the white-collar workers. In the past, this divide exerted its pressures and forced a hearing. It turned politics and policy, albeit in a slow process that was at times frustrating for those laying claims to the power and privilege enjoyed by the other. But protest carried weight; it had political capital and it was recognised as a legitimate demand. The labour unions had a voice. The farmers could gather and the government had better listen.

This is different from where we have landed today. The two Indias’ have gotten further apart.

The farmers of India are on a massive protest for a year and there is a disdain and wholesale dismissal of their voice against laissez-faire laws that mark fundamental changes in the way they will live and work hereon. India is weakened by this non-hearing given to farmers who have struggled to be heard. Similarly, India’s child mortality rate is the non-hearing of the voices and cries of children and mothers and families who have been unable to similarly ask for their basic rights. It is true that this is not a new problem but the previous governments at least exerted, even if half-heartedly, to address these concerns. Now, we have the face turned away. It is as if it does not matter in the light of a brute Parliamentary majority. It is “them” versus “us”.

This is the divide between the rural and the urban, or the gap between the farmers, blue-collar and the white-collar workers

Thus, the divides of yesterday have widened today along with the further burden of an ugly and sinister care-a-damn signature from an India that is racing to the top of the world order, as we are led to believe. This divide mirrors across many spheres – the way labour migrants were stranded and treated versus industry captains demanding later that they be forced to return and that labour rights be curtailed; the way ordinary citizens struggled for oxygen at the height of the pandemic versus the way doctors fleeced and charged and made money; the way a fancy capital is being built versus the way infrastructure for ordinary citizens is crumbling; the way hotels are busy and airports are crowded versus the non-discourse on jobs for our youth who graduate every year and struggle to find work; the way more than 100 people die every day of snakebite versus the way we have advanced health care in some of our best hospitals; the way undertrials languish in jail and Father Stan Swamy died in custody versus the way the former police commissioner of Mumbai Param Bir Singh has gone missing and the police he led once now hunts for him; the way a bullet train will one day run while several current railway stations remain in disrepair.

In this kind of a line up, the hunger index is but one more indicator of how India is slipping even as the noise of India on the march is made to grow and overwhelm all other voices.

For the first time also, we appear to have a government that works with a sense of certitude – it has a way paved not in the need of the moment, the requirements of our times or in response to the pictures of suffering before us. It is cut in its own version of an ideological frame that is being pushed in the belief, it appears, that India’s time has come, that businesses will lead, that prosperity will reign and government can take a backseat as a private sector fired by animal instincts and growth hormones like the concessions and sops on offer will take us to a GDP-led nirvana. That is one underlying narrative of a wild ride that India is now being taken on. In its support is an army of propagandists, who seek to drown dissent and paint a diverse, multifaced nation with one hue of saffron politics. It diminishes the rich legacy of Indian traditions. It builds anger and hate among the depressed and the downtrodden. It is not the picture of India on a path of sustainable growth.

Malnutrition is a contributory factor in 50% of child deaths across the nation

The narrow ideological trap takes it as given that socialism was bad, Nehru got it wrong, Gandhi was not particularly noble and our private sector players (or a few of them) are waiting to unleash their innate potential and drive India into a high orbit. This blind belief is disdainful of history, devoid of context and fired by a toxic mix of ignorance and malice. It drives actions that cross limits and breeds a callousness and dishonesty that wears the false halo of a national cause and a higher national ambition. In these assumptions, everything gets justified and promoted and indeed wears a badge of saffron honour. Any criticism now comes under fire; any action gets justified. 

In the end, only balance and wisdom can govern a vast cacophonous democracy like India. The overriding of legitimate claims and demands in the name of a great nation waiting to happen signals not progress but regress. We are headed down and the hunger index report is just one more independent sign of this.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)

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