Surplus malnutrition

India: Ranking high both in wheat exports and malnourished children.

Published October 24, 2006 4:42PM (EDT)

India is the planet's second largest exporter of rice and milk and fifth largest exporter of wheat. And yet the Global Hunger Report listing of the world's hungriest countries lists India 96th out of 119 (119 is the worst). The numbers are even worse for malnourished children -- India places 117th out of 119.

These numbers were brought to my attention by Madhukar Shukla, a professor of strategic management at Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, India. Shukla's blog, Alternative Perspective, just jumped to the top of the India department of my blogreader with his thoughtful inside-the-numbers look at the startling contrast between export wealth and starving children.

The number that really jumps out at you, writes Shukla, is the trend line of India's Global Hunger Index ranking: It improved from 41 in 1982 to 32 in 1983 to 25 in 1997. But since then it has held steady at 25. The significance is this: In the period during which India opened up to the outside world and set off a sustained period of high economic growth, it has made little new progress in addressing hunger and malnutrition for vast swaths of its population.

Part of the problem, writes Shukla, is that India is currently operating under a system where the government has opened up the grain-procurement market to private traders and multinational agribusinesses, which has resulted in prices shooting up and profits for big farmers who have access to the supply chains of the multinationals, but is simultaneously importing wheat to keep prices low in the subsidizied "open market" where small farmers traditionally sell their produce.

The long-term bet of the reformers is that a growing economy will spread prosperity beyond the elites in Bangalore and Chennai and Hyderabad. But if in the short term, as suggested by the Global Hunger Report, India has stopped making progress addressing hunger among the poor, well then, it is little wonder, as Shukla observes, that thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide every year.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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