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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 48 November 25, 2023

India’s Fight Against Poverty and Hunger | S N Tripathy

Saturday 25 November 2023, by S N Tripathy


In the recently released Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 2023, India has been ranked at the 111th position out of 125 countries. This marks a slight decline from its position in 2022, when it was ranked 107th out of 121 countries. The report highlights a concerning trend of increasing undernourishment on a global scale since 2017.

Undernourishment is a critical component in calculating GHI scores, and it has seen a significant rise from 572 million to approximately 735 million people within just five years. The GHI report attributes this increases to various factors, including climate change, conflicts, economic crises, the global pandemic, and the Russia-Ukraine war. These events have exacerbated social and economic inequalities and hindered progress in reducing hunger in many countries.

While the Global Hunger Index is considered a valuable tool for comprehensively measuring and tracking hunger at global, national, and regional levels, it’s worth noting that the Government of India has rejected the report’s findings. The government has stated that the index is a flawed measure of "hunger" and does not accurately reflect India’s true position. The Women and Child Development Ministry has gone so far as to claim that the index suffers from "serious methodological issues and shows a malafide intent."

The NFHS-5 report showed a considerable increase in neonatal mortality. According to Poshan Tracker data from last month, over 4.3 million malnourished children are in India. According to the NITI Aayog’s National Multidimensional Poverty Index, more than 21 crores people, which is equivalent to the combined population of Russia (14.34 crores) and the United Kingdom (6.76 crores), are living in poverty, accounting for over 15% of the total population.

In India, since gaining independence, different governments have implemented various policies on food security to ensure the availability of affordable food grains to the general population. These policies include subsidized food grains through the public distribution system, setting support prices for food grain procurement, and managing stock levels through import and export policies.

A disturbing pattern emerges at the national level – the countries witnessing the most significant spikes in food insecurity are often those caught in the throes of debt crises and confronting the most severe impacts of climate change. Hunger is a complex web that interconnects food supply, purchasing power, and prices. Supply hinges on domestic production, which is vulnerable to the vagaries of extreme weather and conflict, and a nation’s ability to import essential food items, a capacity hampered by steep transport costs and foreign exchange limitations.

Income-earning opportunities shape the purchasing power of households and individuals, the balance of wages and self-employment earnings against food prices, and the extent of social protection mechanisms, such as public provisions for essential items. Meanwhile, the fluctuation in food prices is influenced by national and international trade dynamics. A growing awareness has emerged regarding the concentration of power in agribusiness and its capacity to influence global food prices. Speculative activities in commodity futures markets also affect food prices in the spot market.

This complex web of factors and their interconnectedness demands a comprehensive approach to combat the growing threat of global hunger. While regulating financial activities in volatile commodities markets is undoubtedly vital, it is only one piece of the puzzle. To withstand price fluctuations and ensure food security, nations and regions must focus on building reserves of essential food items. This involves not only the establishment of strategic stockpiles but also social protection measures to shield against food insecurity. This necessitates a greater focus on public investment and incentives for the private sector to invest in sustainable smallholder agriculture.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food security as the availability of food for all, ensuring that all individuals have the means to access it, that it is nutritionally adequate in terms of quantity, quality, and variety, and that it aligns with the cultural preferences of the population.
Achieving this balance is crucial for proper food security.

To assess the nutritional aspect of India, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) established a daily caloric intake of 1,632 kilocalories per day in 2008. Key indicators used include:

  • The prevalence of calorie undernourishment.
  • The proportion of underweight children.
  • The under-five mortality rate.

India, a country of vast diversity and complexity, has long grappled with socioeconomic disparities and poverty. One critical challenge in tackling these disparities is the misalignment of Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (APL) categories, often leading to eligible individuals needing the necessary benefits. Initiatives like the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) aim to bridge these gaps by providing funds for income-generating programs. However, faulty monitoring mechanisms, the misuse of funds, and a lack of motivation often hinder the effectiveness of these programs. In this essay, we will explore the issues surrounding the mismatch of BPL and APL categories and examine the obstacles that prevent these well-intentioned initiatives from achieving their full potential.

The BPL and APL classifications are central to India’s social welfare and poverty alleviation programs. These categories determine eligibility for various government schemes, subsidies, and support. The BPL category is intended to encompass the most vulnerable and poor individuals, while the APL category includes those considered financially stable. However, the reality often deviates from these intentions.

One of the primary issues is the mismatch between these categories. Many BPL families find themselves incorrectly placed in the APL list, while some APL households are wrongly categorized as BPL. This discrepancy arises from various factors, including inaccurate data collection, corruption, and the absence of regular reassessments. As a result, those who should be benefiting from targeted assistance do not receive the help they need, while others enjoy undeserved subsidies and support.

The consequences of this misalignment are far-reaching. Those who are wrongly classified as APL may not be eligible for essential welfare programs, leading to financial hardships and a lack of access to critical resources. On the other hand, individuals placed in the BPL category but who still need to meet the criteria may receive subsidies and benefits they are not entitled to, diverting resources from those who genuinely need them.

Recognizing the pressing need to address these disparities, the Indian government introduced the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) and the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM). These initiatives aim to uplift marginalized communities by providing funds for income-generating programs. By empowering individuals to create sustainable sources of income, the NRLM and NULM seek to break the cycle of poverty and reduce dependence on welfare schemes.

While the NRLM and NULM are promising initiatives, their effectiveness is hindered by several challenges. Faulty monitoring mechanisms play a significant role in misallocating funds and resources. Monitoring should ensure that funds are used for their intended purpose and that participants make meaningful progress toward self-sufficiency. However, due to lax oversight and inadequate accountability, funds are often diverted for immediate, day-to-day needs rather than invested in livelihood-improving ventures.

Motivation is a fundamental component of the success of any poverty alleviation program. In many cases, beneficiaries need more motivation to procure livelihood inputs or invest in income-generating activities. This lack of motivation can stem from a sense of hopelessness, a lack of training, or the absence of a support system. By addressing this issue, it is easier to achieve sustainable poverty reduction. Meeting the challenges of BPL-APL misalignment and the effectiveness of programs like NRLM and NULM requires a multifaceted approach:

Regular and accurate data collection is essential to ensure that individuals are correctly classified into BPL and APL categories. This will help target resources more effectively. Strengthening monitoring mechanisms and enforcing accountability is crucial. This can be achieved with technology and local community participation. Beneficiaries should receive training and education on how to utilize funds for income-generating activities. Empowering them with financial literacy can significantly impact the success of such programs. The creation of mentorship and support systems can boost motivation. By connecting beneficiaries with mentors or support groups, they can receive guidance and encouragement, increasing their chances of success. Local communities should be involved in the planning and implementing of programs like NRLM and NULM. This can ensure that initiatives are tailored to each region’s unique needs and challenges. Individualized counselling and support can help beneficiaries make informed decisions about their financial future and motivate them to invest in income-generating activities.

India’s position on the Transparency International corruption index for 2022 is a concerning 85th place. The stagnation of India’s score over the past decade makes this even more alarming, indicating an enduring struggle against corruption. Equally troubling are the signs of deteriorating mechanisms designed to combat corruption, including fundamental freedoms and institutional checks and balances, which are vital for a healthy democracy.

Another irresistible issue in India is the corruption and misuse of funds intended for development and poverty alleviation. Beneficiaries often need more education and awareness to use these resources optimally. Consequently, they tend to allocate these funds towards immediate, short-term needs rather than long-term investments that could genuinely lift them out of poverty. This misuse perpetuates the cycle of poverty and severely undermines the effectiveness of poverty alleviation programs.

Tackling these challenges necessitates a comprehensive approach that focuses on reducing corruption and enhancing the awareness and financial literacy of beneficiaries. Only by augmenting anti-corruption efforts, strengthening democratic institutions, and promoting responsible resource allocation can India hope to break free from the shackles of corruption and poverty and truly empower its citizens for a brighter future.

Regarding measures to tackle fiscal deficits, the government has been cutting subsidies on petroleum prices, which can harm agricultural output. Moreover, unregulated markets have contributed to price hikes, benefiting traders but not improving the financial status of farmers.

To combat these challenges, farmers should be encouraged to produce staple foods in minimum quantities and adopt need-based production strategies to ensure fair pricing. The agricultural sector should be given equal importance alongside manufacturing and services, focusing on developing food processing units to attract educated individuals to agriculture.

Efforts should be made to integrate tribal communities into the social mainstream and provide them with food security. 

A balance between food grain production, storage, and distribution is essential to eliminate hunger in the country. Moreover, comprehensive measurement and management across the entire food chain and system are necessary for food’s sustainable production, distribution, consumption, and waste management.

With its massive population of 1.42 billion, India is the most populous nation on the planet. Notably, it boasts the world’s largest youth population, exceeding 908 million individuals below 35. This demographic segment constitutes a remarkable 66% of India’s overall populace. In the 15-24 age bracket, India hosts the highest concentration of youth globally, exceeding 255 million individuals. The implications of this demographic phenomenon are twofold: offering opportunities and challenges for the nation.

On one hand, India possesses a vast and expanding workforce, holding immense potential as an economic driving force. This demographic advantage can significantly contribute to the country’s growth and development. However, on the other hand, it necessitates substantial investments in education, healthcare, and social services to cater to the needs of this burgeoning youth population. Managing these demands can be daunting, particularly given the country’s resource constraints. Realizing the demographic dividend is contingent on effectively developing human resources, promoting education, fostering skill development, and ensuring access to adequate healthcare services. The delicate balance between this youthful demographic and the imperative for comprehensive development will undoubtedly shape India’s trajectory in the future.

(Author: Prof S N Tripathy, Former Professor of Economics, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune, currently at Berhampur, Odisha)

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