Value Added Article: Recognizing the Empty Bowls | Category – Poverty and Hunger | Source – EPW

Relevance: GS Paper II (Development and Welfare)


Economic and Political Weekly

Why has this article cropped up?

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018 finds global hunger to have risen for three consecutive years since 2015, to reach 82.1 crore people or 11% of the global population in 2017.

Significance of this finding

This marks a reversal of the positive trends of nearly a decade’s fight against global hunger, more importantly, amidst years of positive inventories in the global cereal market, and puts a question mark over the political commitment behind the Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030.

The irony

  • The FAO’s Crop Prospects and Food Situation report for March 2018 had estimated the global cereal production in 2017 to be 1.2% higher than that in 2016, driven by South America (with a 25.4% increase over 2016 cereal output) and Africa (a 10.8% increase from 2016) in the main.
  • Yet, ironically, 29 out of the 37 countries identified by the FAO to be in need of external food assistance due to conflicts/displacement/weather shocks, are in Africa.

The changed norms of food aid

  • According to the United Nation’s World Food Programme, international food aid had evidenced a paradigm shift from programme-based assistance to emergency/relief aids, when the incidence of global food emergencies doubled from an average of 15 a year in the 1980s to 30 in the 2000s, to ensure speedier responses to such increasing emergencies.
  • Whether this has actually benefited the hungry is dubious. Immediate assistance saves lives, but inadvertently generates the risk of policy impasse to ameliorate “chronic” hunger in the long run.
  • In countries where food deficits are so recurrent as to assume near-permanent deficiency, satiating a chronically hungry, growing population with emergency aid alone is potentially untenable, because such assistance is “reaction” to starvation, rather than its “prevention.”

The case of India

  • India still houses nearly two-fifths of Asia’s 51.5 crore undernourished, despite its legal jurisprudence for food security.
  • International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2017 Global Hunger Index ranked India 100th out of 119 countries.
  • Millions of Indians, especially those on the margins, have been customarily living precarious lives due to failures of the system in reaching entitlements to them. Under such situations hunger is both chronic and temporally endemic (or intergenerational).
  • Over the past few months, reportage of alleged starvation deaths has come in from various states. These deaths are symptomatic of the protracted periods of hunger in which approximately a third of India’s population dwells due to entitlement failure.

Way forward

  • Ensuring ubiquitous and steady access to food for intended beneficiaries needs carrying out policies of income redistribution, which respond to objectives of social justice rather than economic efficiency as perceived by neo-liberalism.
  • It also means considering food to be a human right, which must be upheld by governments through public commitments towards creating enabling conditions for the protection and fulfilment of such right.
  • Whether economic efficiency/free markets can create such conditions for benefits to “trickle down” to the hungry people is a matter of contention, given the deep pockets of inequality that neo-liberalism creates. Given this, chronic malnutrition/starvation cannot be understood, let alone prevented, if they are detached from the realities of power.


The formulaic solutions for ending hunger, such as more aid and/or better development programmes, are the impressive theories of human rights, but the implementation of these remains largely a political decision.