Feeding an Elephant: Malnutrition and the Right to Food in India

By Caplin, Jessica | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Feeding an Elephant: Malnutrition and the Right to Food in India


Caplin, Jessica, Harvard International Review


The Rome Declaration on World Food Security, signed in 1996, defines global access to food as "physical and economic access, at all times, to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food [for people] to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active, healthy life." India, like so many optimistic nations, aimed to fulfill this goal. Yet as the "Asian Elephant" lumbered slowly and steadily into the new millennium, millions of Indians were left hungry and malnourished in its great shadow. According to the government's National Family Health Survey-3, 46 percent of India's children under the age of three are underweight. Despite Supreme Court orders to the contrary, India's Public Distribution System, PDS, has failed in its responsibility to feed the people of India. This problem has become all the more acute with the recent rise in global food prices.

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Food for All

Food for all is not limited to the Rome Declaration or the orders of the Supreme Court. It is also considered a matter of human rights and is mentioned specifically in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 25, which states that "everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family including food, clothing, and housing." While this declaration is non-binding, the commitment found in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by India on April 10th, 1979, states that governments must devise "specific programs, which are needed: (a) to improve methods of production, conservation, and distribution of food" and to "ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need." Primarily, India is bound by the Code of Conduct on the Right to Adequate Food, developed during the World Food Summit, which obligates a government to ensure access to food in a way that does not interfere with others' access and to ensure availability of food that is culturally acceptable, plentiful, and nutritious.

India's Ability to Provide

Faced with a population of roughly one billion people, 60 percent of whom live in rural areas with little access to infrastructure, modern technology, and adequate health services, the Indian government has made PDS responsible for a daunting task. Yet, over the last thirty years, India has seen a one hundred and six percent increase in domestic food production, from forty-eight million tons of food grain in 1951 to 180 million tons in 2000. Moreover, India has long enjoyed a surplus in grain, enough to satisfy the demands of the 46 million children PDS serves, who compromise roughly 4.8 percent of India's population according to a New York Times report. With the blessing of full silos, PDS was and is in a prime position to fulfill its honorable mandate.

Success stories in West Bengal and Kerala demonstrate the initial eagerness of state governments to alleviate hunger. Prior to 1997, PDS in Kerala, a southwestern state, covered 95 percent of households, providing for poor rural and urban families. While Maharashtra state allotted 10 kg of grain per adult per month and Bihar even less at eight kg, Kerala supplied 13.8 kg, well over the 370g of cereals needed per person each day for sufficient caloric intake. For the lowest income bracket, PDS food accounted for 18 percent of the total daily calories consumed. Ration shops throughout the state were fair and frequent, eliminating the inconvenience of long distance travel for food. This proliferation of shops not only increased the likelihood of families acquiring nutritious foods, but also minimized the burden of travel, allowing women to devote more time to labor and childcare. Unfortunately, notes Jean Dreze, such success was not universal; in Bihar, the black market, rather than the undernourished, received 80 percent of the grain supplied to PDS for distribution.

Kerala's triumph in the early 1990s demonstrated a model that, free from the corruption endemic in the north and present in the south, could be achieved across India.

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