No more people surviving on rice morsels. Or drops of unsafe drinking water every day. No more people with their ribs popping out. No more people dying on the footpath.
*Snap* and people are eating their fill. *Snap* no malnourishment.
Unfortunately, Thanos’s idea of ending world hunger by snapping his finger and killing half the world’s population in ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is pure fiction. Or so implies Paul Ehrlich in ‘The Population Bomb’ where he says, “Conscious regulation of human numbers must be achieved. Simultaneously we must, at least temporarily, greatly increase our food production.”
Let’s look at our own case. India has dropped seven positions in just one year in the Global Hunger Index 2021 (GHI). This is a tool used to calculate global, regional and national hunger. The GHI releases its score annually based on four factors. Undernourishment, child wasting (children under the age of five who have low weight for their height), child stunting (children under the age of five with a low height for their age), and child mortality (Death rate of children under the age of five). All of these factors are traced back to hunger. This means among many things, a lack of nutritious food. India’s score of 27.5 in 2021 is termed serious by the GHI. But how is the calorific intake doing?
The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), defines hunger or food deprivation by it after all.“Hunger is an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation caused by insufficient consumption of dietary energy. It becomes chronic when the person does not consume a sufficient amount of calories (dietary energy) on a regular basis to lead a normal, active and healthy life.” The Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) suggests every individual in rural India consume 2400 kilocalories (kcal) per day. However, a paper published by BMC Public Health says, as of 2019, 95% of India’s population consumes less than required.
The Government of India’s Women and Child Development ministry’s response to the drop in the GHI?“The opinion poll does not have a single question on whether the respondent received any food support from the government or other sources.” While India has improved in some parts, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal have simply done better and gone past India in the GHI. The central government has called the survey process “unscientific”. Like the BMC public health research, recent studies are pointing elsewhere, again and again, to grasp the shifting nature of reality, particularly in the last year. This is crucial to understanding hunger as well.
For instance, the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013 is meant to ensure that “all people, at all times, should get access to the basic food for their active and healthy life.” Through a targeted public distribution system 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population, is meant to be covered. But 75 million more Indians have fallen into the poor category in the last year alone. The poor here is a category of those with a daily income of $2 or less. This is due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Pew Research Centre Analysis. People are earning less and therefore finding protein-rich food more difficult to buy. This is about a diminishing economic ability to afford food items and not about how much grain a nation produces. “Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people,” says Ehrlich.
Ehrlich’s conscious regulation is what China did and has reversed now. Even before the pandemic though, things were not looking good. Only 44% of the central and state funds allotted to the Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) were found to have been utilised by 2018-19. The dip in funding the Mid-Day Meal scheme by the central government is evident in the 2021-2022 Union Budget document, where the world’s largest food programme shows a drop of a whopping 32.3%. So fewer people were being reached. Now the numbers of those becoming poorer are up too. This also suggests possible intergenerational malnourishment. As children born to malnourished mothers then sadly walk into life, underfed from day one.
Thanos’ theory does not work, because a sudden decrease in the birth rate will improve things only in the short run. The population will increase exponentially if chronic reasons are not addressed. There is already a draft bill introduced in the Upper House or Rajya Sabha in 2019 which calls for a revised population policy. With a small family as the norm, not as the exception. Except here it is a private member bill. Not one debated in Parliament yet nor therefore drafted into law.
In it, there is a slew of incentives for those who keep to two children per family. There will also be punitive exclusion from the state’s benefits for the family that does not follow it. With the memory of the Indian Emergency still fresh, when Sanjay Gandhi tried to force a sterilization drive and failed, this 2019 ‘Population Regulation Bill’ sounds closer to Thanos’ snap, doesn’t it?
For overcoming hunger though, some of India’s best results have come when young parents feel secure enough, having good healthcare and nutrition nearby. Where they are. They themselves then are able to see their child grow to live a well-nourished life. It is part of a truer picture of what helps curb hunger. The opposite of a *snap*.
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Ishita Ahuja is a second-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is an aspiring Literature major and Environmental Science minor, with an affinity for the outdoors. She hopes to become an environmental journalist soon.
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