Revisiting Hunger in South Asia


Hungry Kya? (Are you Hungry?)

This widespread pseudo language phrase has been floating around in electronic, print and digital media besides being projected on billboards across South Asia. The advertiser, while using this phrase along with the image of a slice of a pizza, invites the attention of a section of population to the culture of consumption. However, this symbol of modernity strongly contradicts with the images from the other parts of the subcontinent where people are starving and dying of hunger.

Recently, I came across the Report on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2014 which scrutinized the state of hunger in 120 countries. On the basis of multidimensional statistical analysis, it claims that 55 of these countries are in abysmal conditions with respect to hunger. The report estimates that 805 millions are suffering from chronic hunger while 2 billion people are afflicted with hidden hunger, that is, a deficiency of micronutrients, all over the world. According to this report, Africa and South Asia have the highest level of hunger. The GHI ranks India at 55th position, Bangladesh and Pakistan at 57th position, Nepal at 44th and Sri Lanka at 39th.

In this context when I see this tagline Hungry Kya?, I feel the urge of reframing it to Hunger Kya Hai? (What is hunger from the perspective of a hungry person?) Hungry kaun? (Who are Hungry?) Hungry Kyun aur Kaise?  (Why and how hunger persists in South Asia in spite of accelerating economic growth?) In this article, I attempt to look at the microcosmic reality and macrocosmic facts relating to hunger in South Asia.

Hunger Kya Hai?  (What is hunger?)

Does hunger merely connote dearth of food or deficiency of micronutrients or does it indeed have some broader implication? What is hunger from the perspective of a person who has starved for the larger part of his or her life? In biological terms, surely hunger implies lack of nourishment, stunted growth, loss of immunity, deprivation and deaths.

However, on the basis of experiential realities, it may be said that hunger is such an expansive social veracity in South Asia that it cannot be simply translated as absence of meals or lack of micronutrients. Hunger, here, means leading a life entrapped in a vicious circle of paucity and scarcity, a life where besides food everything else required to lead a dignified life is absent. It implies chronic starvation, prolonged deprivation, deeply entrenched poverty and absence of well being. Above all, it entails an assault on self-esteem and respect of a person.

Hunger, here, denotes surviving on mango kernel, tamarind seeds, tendu leaves, wild grass, poisonous roots and tubers or starving – skipping several meals altogether because nothing else is available. It involves either living by fending or begging, or plainly existing in a famished situation as gathering food is unfeasible when one is sick, aged or deprived. Hunger implies deliberately eating the available poisonous plants knowing that consumption of these will cause harm and pain. It means learning to survive on far less than what is required; sleeping on empty belly, surviving in tattered clothes in chilly winter nights, and being homeless.

Hunger connotes leading a precarious life at the edge of survival where each day brings new dangers, new crises, and new sickness and every night is accompanied by uncertainty and a bleak hope of surviving the next day. The challenge before a hungry person is to arrange a meal knowing that there is no prospect of getting food unless and until s/he toils or begs. Everyday life of a starving person is marked with a choice between harsh, unyielding, back breaking exertion, and hunger. Hunger devalues work. It means engaging in activities for which one is denied justified wages; neither can one demand the same, because raising your voice could mean losing whatever is available.

Hunger, signifies self denial, helplessness, intense torment and immense agony. A starving person besides thinking about food needs to deal with extreme unavoidable suffering due to hostility, erosion of trust and social neglect. Hunger, symbolizes powerlessness and disenfranchisement. It entails abandonment, destitution and invisibility and above all a starving person is blamed for his own conditions – for ‘isn’t he too lazy to work and earn his meals?’

Hunger creates isolation, stigmatization and alienation. Hunger involves skewed distribution of resources within societies, within communities and within families where women are the last to consume leftovers. Hunger exists because of injustice – social, economic and political.

Hunger leads to gender discrimination.  It involves women selling their souls and bodies so they can feed their children. In South Asia it entails children and women being sold, trafficked and enslaved. It also means unwillingly sending children to work, forcefully accepting bondage or resort to begging in order to stay alive.

Hunger relates to migration, development induced displacement and debts. In South Asia it exists because of a weakening of familial bonds, loss of community support and dilution of support structures, all in the wake of a culture of greed installed by the system of capitalism.

Additionally, hunger implies that government schemes dole out insufficient, inadequate food or money in the form of pension which is barely enough to keep one alive. The quantum of assistance is too meager compared to the needs and access is hindered by corruption and delay. Also it implies running from pillar to post within the government departments to avail of any small benefits under those schemes.

Hunger is created because biodiversity is destroyed. Hunger, relates to erosion of indigenous knowledge about soil, land and farming besides denial of the rights of tribal people to the forest or its produce – replacing democracy with eco-apartheid and bio-imperialism.

Hunger has been created in South Asia because the governments adopted the top down approach or trickle-down theory of economy once they gained independence. As per these policies, schemes are made by a handful on top while neglecting the ground realities. The farmers, food producers, cultivators and women as custodian of knowledge all are ignored.

Hunger is exacerbated because precious agriculture labor is reduced to an unskilled laborer while corporations are being subsidized at the cost of impoverishment of the farmers. Hunger is forced by exposing small farmers to global competition without any support; adopting unfair trade practices, destroying their livelihoods, pushing them to the verge of destitution and compelling them to commit suicide.  Hunger is intensified due to conversion of agriculture into agribusiness dominated by corporations.

Hunger, here, means land grabbing, forcible eviction, fuel crisis, food crisis, financial crisis, creation of a debt economy, genetic engineering of seeds, dumping of artificial food and toxic chemicals by large corporations and all this is supported by international organizations in the guise of free trade and neoliberalism.

Hunger in South Asia includes mountains of food rotting inside warehouses or being exported when millions are starving. Most importantly,hunger persists not because of a shortage of food but because of a failure in allocating entitlements; or in other words, because of gaps in social arrangements that enable people to access food.

Hunger, therefore, is a larger social and political issue in South Asia that draws wider linkages with poverty, food security, agrarian crisis, gender inequalities, social and economic disparities, loss of employment opportunities, denial of the right to land and forest, right to work, right to livelihood and right to survive.

Hunger is a manmade disaster and a socially as well as economically constructed phenomenon that relegates many to the periphery. To summarize what hunger implies in the wider social context I quote this famous poem titled Hunger by Jayant Mahapatra

It was hard to believe the flesh was heavy on my back.
The fisherman said: Will you have her, carelessly,
trailing his nets and his nerves, as though his words
sanctified the purpose with which he faced himself.
I saw his white bone thrash his eyes.

I followed him across the sprawling sands,
my mind thumping in the flesh’s sling.
Hope lay perhaps in burning the house I lived in.
Silence gripped my sleeves; his body clawed at the froth
his old nets had only dragged up from the seas.

In the flickering dark his lean-to opened like a wound.
The wind was I, and the days and nights before.
Palm fronds scratched my skin. Inside the shack
an oil lamp splayed the hours bunched to those walls.
Over and over the sticky soot crossed the space of my mind.

I heard him say: My daughter, she’s just turned fifteen…
Feel her. I’ll be back soon, your bus leaves at nine.
The sky fell on me, and a father’s exhausted wile.
Long and lean, her years were cold as rubber.
She opened her wormy legs wide. I felt the hunger there,
the other one, the fish slithering, turning inside

Who are Hungry?

The World Food Program (WFP) reported that the world produced enough to feed the seven billion people, yet one in eight persons on the planet goes to bed hungry each night.  Out of these the maximum number is in South Asia where 276 million people are chronically malnourished. According to the WFP, about 32.7% population in India survives on less than $1.25 a day. Also, the country is home to quarter of all undernourished people worldwide.

In Sri Lanka, around 1.2 million people require food assistance as a result of conflict and rising food prices. According to the Household Food Security and Nutrition Assessment carried out in Bangladesh in 2008-09, 37 million people, or about a quarter of the population, were found to be food insecure. Malnutrition in Nepal is the highest in the world. 41% children under five are stunted, 29% are underweight and 11% are wasted. In Bhutan, close to one third of the population suffers from food insecurity.

The National Nutrition Survey in Pakistan found 58.1% of households to be food insecure. Women and children are frequently found to be stunted, wasted and underweight in Pakistan. These are statistics, and hunger may not be generalized on the basis of this data because each experience is unique and is positioned in a heterogeneous, layered, complex, cultural and hierarchical social reality.

Hunger exists in a village as much as in the city. In a society where the state refuses to provide for socio-economic security to its citizens on account of dearth of resources, hunger entails those classes, categories and communities who are socially expelled, excluded, dispossessed and isolated.

The irony lies in the fact that those who grow, cultivate and harvest food are the ones most deprived of it. The inability to compete with the others to join the mainstream pushes one to marginality and often this category of people includes the disabled and the aged, women and children, the diseased and sick, deprived minorities and dalits, tribals, survivors of conflict or disasters, single women, migrants, homeless, unorganized workers, beggars, slum dwellers and other similar categories.

Hungry Kyun or Kaise?  

Why and how hunger persists in South Asia in spite of accelerating economic growth? The South Asian region is rich in terms of natural and human resources and comprises of an economy where agricultural production outpaced the requirement of the population. Yet, millions of people are leading the life of chronic hunger and starvation because of the cumulative outcome of policies that reproduce impoverishment in spite of ambitious poverty alleviation programs. Hunger persists because of a failure of governance, absence of democratic accountability, corruption, leakage, poor allocation, apathy and hostility towards the poor.

Underemployment, unemployment, unfair wage distribution and reduced earnings along with inflation, all indicate a failure of states across South Asia leading to uneven development. Conflicts, internal and external threats, religious fundamentalism, democratic deficit all are causing systemic and endemic poverty, chronic hunger, mass starvation, abysmal ill-health, deprivation and marginalization besides leading to environmental degradation, food, water and energy crisis.

Further, advancement of neoliberal policies, feudalism and imperialist globalization have intensified poverty and left millions of people starving. The failure of invest in agriculture or to empower marginal farmers has created a situation of poverty and hunger. Above all, paving the way for green revolution, that could create a surplus but could not sustain the farmers are some of the reasons that intensified hunger.

The green revolution approach was based on yield and not health per acre of the land thus emphasizing on quantity rather than the quality of production.  Besides overlooking destitution and embedded gender, caste, tribe, disability, stigma and other social barriers made a deep impact on access to food.

The development model propagated by neoliberal regimes across South Asia increased inequalities and eroded the quality of life for millions. Further, the states never questioned the key issues of structural imbalances nor addressed the gaps in the neo-liberal paradigm which is the major cause of amplification of poverty. Rather the states played a vital role in escalating hunger by denying people’s access to forests and common resources by promoting corporations-inspired development agenda.

Policy makers consider starvation as a temporary phenomenon caused by failure of monsoons rather than as an element of daily lives thus responding minimally to a grave problem. Therefore, no attention is paid to keep the vital human resource alive.  Any expenditure on securing food right is seen as a wasteful cost.

Denial and blaming the victims are strategies used by the state in case voices are raised against hunger deaths. Also, in policy formulation, efforts are being wasted to measure `poverty line’ by counting `assets’ people own rather than dealing with the hunger and starvation they routinely face.  The programs are woefully inadequate to address destitution or entrenched substantial inequalities.

Moreover, within the region, the arrangements are such that the state cannot be held liable for letting millions of citizens die because of food deprivation caused by adopting wrong policies. Though almost all the South Asian countries have ratified major human rights declarations and covenants and have accepted the obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the commitments for the right to food, yet, little has been done to fulfill those promises. Bangladesh, Nepal and India have made attempts to recognize the right to food, yet, in reality, the benefits of food security programss have failed to reach the masses.

Fighting against Bhook: Marching Ahead to Survive and Create Sustainable Societies

Hunger is not a deterrent for people who are willing to struggle against it. Amidst hunger and poverty there are tales of life and hope which assert that you can `slaughter our bodies but you cannot slay our spirit’.  The human spirit is insuperable and finds ways to stoically combat the battle to stay alive bravely against all odds. Hungry people are not mere spectators of their misery, rather they express their anger, resentment, frustration, courage, willpower and resilience in different ways.

Famished people are negotiating spaces to raise their concerns all over the subcontinent using different tools and methods to fight for justice against neoliberal regimes, against patriarchy, social discrimination, caste and religious oppression and above all against unjust policies while holding the state accountable. For example in India, Public Interest litigation is being used to assert the right to food and the National Food Security Act was enacted in 2013. Women, youth, peasants, farmers, workers, socially marginalized groups all are fighting for social justice.

At the regional level, people’s SAARC Regional Convergence is being held in parallel with official SAARC Summit in 2014 with the goal of uniting people’s movement across South Asia “for deepening democracy, social justice and peace” and with a vision of creating an alternative political, social and economic system to re-establish ecological balance. Demands are being raised for establishing food sovereignty against oppressive, unfair and unequal economic development models. The aim is to promote a society that is sustainable, just and egalitarian.

It is being advocated that the development model must incorporate the rights of individuals, communities and people to define their own food, fishing, land, agriculture and labor policies which are socially, economically, culturally and ecologically viable. To achieve this goal of people-centered development, it is essential that genuine agrarian reform, forest and land reforms be implemented while acknowledging the right of indigenous people and women while redressing structural inequalities.

A strong alliance of people gives a ray of hope to counter unequal power relations and battle hunger because it is a manmade vice and surely can be addressed.



[Image Credit: UNICEF India / Syed Altaf Ahmed]