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Tackling hunger in India: Make food a fundamental right

Even after 60 years of independence, all government schemes have failed to remove hunger in India. Only a well-defined law can prove to be a catalyst to change the current scenario.

By Anubhav Srivastava

May 10, 2009

The following are some of the startling facts thrown by various reports released in recent times by agencies like World Food Programme (WFP) and the Ministry of Health, India about the state of hunger in India. Some of these figures are worst than the hunger indicators of many sub-Saharan African countries. 

  • About 50 per cent of the world’s hungry people reside in India. 
  • Around 350 million (35 crore) people in India consume less than 80 per cent of minimum energy requirements and can be considered food insecure.
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 pregnant women aged between 15 and 49 years suffer from malnutrition and anaemia.
  • Anaemia in pregnant women causes 20 per cent of infant mortality. 
  • More than half of the children under five are moderately or severely malnourished, or suffer from stunting. 
  • Malnutrition accounts for nearly 50 per cent of child deaths in India. Every third adult (aged 15-49 years) is reported to be thin (BMI less than 18.5). 
  • According to the latest report on the state of food insecurity in rural India, more than 1.5 million children are at risk of becoming malnourished because of rising global food prices. 
  • India ranks 94th in the Global Hunger Index of 119 countries.
  • Around 30 per cent of babies in India are born underweight and every second child in the country is stunted. 
The figures are appalling considering that the foodgrain harvest during 2008-09 is estimated to be a record 228 million tonnes. People in India are dying of hunger despite millions of tonnes of foodgrain rotting in the Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns. 

This highlights the level of apathy in the government machinery which is spending tax-payer’s money without achieving any meaningful outcome in reducing hunger in India. 

Hence it is high time India amends the constitution to make Right to Food a fundamental right. In April 2001, People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Rajasthan filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking legal enforcement of the right to food. The basic argument is that the right to food is an implication of the fundamental “right to life” enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

There are many arguments against making right to food a fundamental right. Cynics argue that such a law will make people lazy. However it must be understood that almost 35 per cent of the people in India are not able to contribute anything meaningful to the economy because of their constant struggle against hunger and malnutrition. It is only when they are free from the clutches of hunger that they will be able to think on their feet. And only then can they be gainfully employed in various economic activities. 

Another arguments put forth against fundamental right for food is that if such a rule is implemented, it would mean that existence of hunger would be deemed a violation of a person’s fundamental rights. However it must be taken into consideration that violation of fundamental rights mean infringement and deprivation by the action of government or any other organised group. On the other hand, such legislation will ensure that the government takes its obligation of providing food to the hungry people with utmost urgency and priority. 

Right to food will also generate employment opportunities for many as providing access to food to each and every citizen of India will require establishment of a supply chain much bigger than the current public distribution system. India should thus make Right to Food a fundamental right. Even after 60 years of independence, all government schemes have failed to remove hunger. Only a well-defined law can prove to be a catalyst to change the current scenario.

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India. 

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