A few months ago, Madhu, 27, was first tied and then brutally beaten to death by a frenzied mob in Kerala. His fault? Allegedly stealing food worth USD 3. In a similar incident in 2011, a video appeared, showing a Pakistani teen being shot twice by security forces for allegedly stealing food.
Even seven decades after Independence, a hunger crisis in the neighbouring south Asian countries continues to persist.
Two Nations, One Struggle
Sharing a common colonial legacy, India and Pakistan, post-Independence, have struggled to achieve sustainable growth. Although, successive regimes on both sides of the border have tried to bring about massive policy changes and improve the living standards of its citizens, both the countries have failed to produce major breakthroughs, particularly in hunger alleviation.
According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report, out of the 850 million hungry people in the world, 300 million are from India and Pakistan alone. This is despite the fact that both countries produce surplus food.
“Problems arise owing to deficiencies in policy implementation, and distribution rather than production,” says Khurshid Ahmad, a senior official working in the Government of India's food distribution department.
India and Pakistan both export food grains in large quantities to foreign countries. For instance, India is ranked first and Pakistan fourth when it comes to exporting rice and yet millions in both countries starve for want of food.
“It’s a paradox of plenty. Despite producing sufficient food, India and Pakistan rank at the far end of all global hunger indices. Mountains of grain continue to rot in go-downs, while more recently, irate farmers spilled tonnes of potatoes on the streets in Indian Punjab. We have seen similar incidents in Pakistan too. And if you think this is a recent phenomenon, you are mistaken. I have seen this happening for nearly 25 years now across both the countries at regular intervals,” says Davender Sharma, a food and agriculture policy analyst, based in New Delhi.
The Humongous Problem of Hunger
Food and Agriculture Association of United Nations in its 2017 report, estimated that 190.7 million people are undernourished in India, amounting to 14.5 percent of the entire population. In Pakistan, the numbers too cross 40 million, quite humongous considering the population of the country is less than 200 million.
“The problem will not cease until we are successful in decentralising the whole distribution system. Brazil is a classic example. They were able to eliminate hunger in 20 years by applying decentralised system based on model of local production, local equipment and local distribution. Here in India food is transported from one state to another for stocking purpose and then redistributed to the first state,'' says Sharma.
Mukhtar Ahmad (name changed), a senior official at Punjab Food Authority, Government of Punjab, Pakistan, blames smuggling and inadequate storage for the problem. “A lot of wheat from Pakistan is smuggled to Afghanistan which compounds the problem. Plus there is lack of proper storage system for crops,” he says, adding that many a time, prices become unaffordable for a common man due to the role of middlemen and hoarders. “National food security policy 2018 aims high but there is no work on ground to root out the existing problems.”
In a bid to climb up the economic ladder, both countries are focusing more on infrastructural development rather than agriculture. This has led to migration of people from rural areas to urban and suburban areas in search of work, which further aggravates the problem.
“My husband works as a construction labourer and toils hard to feed us. But he doesn't get work every day. We have to sleep on empty stomachs on the days when nobody offers him work,” says Sita, 27, who has migrated with her family from eastern Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi in search of livelihood. Along with her three kids and husband, she lives at a dumping yard in Okhla. “Some days if we get lucky , people from the gurudwara or mosque distribute food to us,” she adds.
Sita is among thousands of people who have migrated from rural parts of India to urban or suburban areas, in search of better living standards and employment. However, due to limited resources, she, like many others, ended up living on roadsides without enough food to feed the family.
“The problem arises when we try to ignore the fact that both these countries are agricultural economies, and economic policies unfortunately revolve around industrialization alone,” Sharma says, blaming policy makers with a narrow understanding of development for deaths related to hunger.
Sharma suggests, “Agriculture, with the latest technology, can help in sustaining communities in their original habitats. If every region or area produces some amount of food quantity, people will not end up dying of hunger.”
How Religious Organisations Are Helping
With governments in both neighbouring countries failing to meet food demands, many religious institutions are trying to help poor people get at least two meals a day. At Bangla Sahib Gurduwara, a historic Sikh shrine in central Delhi, langar (free kitchen) housed within the golden-domed complex, serves fresh meals to around 20,000 people a day.
“Hundreds of volunteers pour in to assist in cooking and serving chapatis, rice and dal, round the clock. Apart from serving in the gurudwara, we also dispatch food packets to different locations, especially during a crisis,” says Harjinder Singh, an employee of the gurudwara.
Some 300 miles away, in Pakistan, at Lahore's bustling Daata Durbaar Ganjbaksh shrine, a similar 24x7 langar goes on, feeding more than 40,000 people on a daily basis. “We serve to all those who come to visit the shrine, without distinctions of caste or class but usually at night time, people who can't afford food, come here to satiate their hunger,” says Aftab Ahmed, 27, a local volunteer.
Others too are engaged in the battle against hunger. For Juhi, 28-year-old volunteer of the non-profit organisation, Robinhood Army, weekends are not for leisure. She, along with other volunteers, collects surplus food from various restaurants in Delhi and distributes it among the underprivileged.
“Whenever I enter my assigned cluster, kids literally jump in joy. I think this is the best way to contribute to society,” says Juhi. “It is my kind of nationalism,” she adds.
How NGOs Are Fighting Hunger
“Understanding that the same problems engulf the other side of border too, on 15 February 2015, we expanded our mission to the neighbouring country and commenced activities in Karachi, Pakistan,” says Rahul Chaubay, Head, Delhi Chapter of Robinhood Army.
In August 2017, buoyed by their success, the Robin Hood Army undertook a mission titled Mission1Million, which aimed at mobilising Indians and Pakistanis together to serve food to one million countrymen, to mark Independence Day. Robinhood Army volunteers across both countries, successfully managed to serve 1.34 million meals during this mega event.
However, are weekly or one-off events the answer to alleviating such a humongous problem? Jayati Ghosh, Professor at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi believes rapid aggregate income growth over the past two decades has not addressed the basic issue of ensuring the food security of the population.
“Nutrition indicators have stagnated, and per capita calorie consumption has actually declined during and post the liberalisation period, suggesting that the problem of hunger may have gotten worse,” Ghosh says.
(Hanan Zaffar is Associate Editor, ‘Muslim Mirror' and Editor 'CricSwarm'. He has written extensively on politics and sports for national and international organisations like DailyO, The Diplomat, The Quint, Albilad Daily, The Citizen etc. He tweets @HananZaffar.
Amanjeet Singh is a freelance journalist who has reported for organisations like India Today, Dailyo and The Citizen. He tweets @s_amanjeet.
Ila Kazmi is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. She is currently pursuing a masters in convergent journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia.)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)