‘Sometimes from sheer rebellion we ate grass, although it always resulted in stomach cramps and violent retching…’ Kamala Markandaya, ‘The Nectar In A Sieve’ (1982).
Indian literature is replete with descriptions of hunger because it has been a constant guest in many a home, leaving its cursed footprint on people’s lives in marked and tragic way.
The National Advisory Council, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, has just recommended that households in India’s poorest districts get 35 kilograms of food grain every month at Rs 3 (US$1=Rs 46.7). The move comes as a reminder that at the heart of India’s hunger are women. Nothing underlines this more than an insight that emerged from the National Family Health Survey-3: Anaemia is two times higher among Indian women than Indian men.
Visit the cavernous maternity wards of Mahila Chikitsalaya, a public hospital just off Jaipur’s Sanganeri Gate, to understand this better. Here lie innumerable pale-faced women, many of them not yet 20, with their tiny, mewling newborns. A significant proportion of these babies are unlikely to survive their fifth year. This is a scene that is repeated in public hospitals all across India.
Explains Dr A.K. Shiva Kumar, noted development economist and member of the National Advisory Council, “The extremely high proportion of low birth weight babies born in India points to an inter-generational transfer of under-nutrition from the mother to the child. Malnourished mothers mean malnourished children.”
The urgency of the issue cannot be emphasised enough. Chris Chalmers, Acting Head, DFID India, which is working with the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal to address malnourishment, puts it this way, “Four in 10 Indian children are malnourished, and are therefore likely to have poor health, do worse in school and earn less in later life. This is not just about eradicating hunger. It’s about ensuring a good quality diet that allows children to grow and lead productive lives.”
As early as in 1974, The Status of Women Committee Report - the first attempt by the Indian government to review the position of women – expressly recognised that hunger in India has a gender dimension. It decried the custom of women serving food to the men of the family first, adding that “in families affected by poverty, this generally results in … great malnutrition for the women”.
Nothing, in fact, symbolises women’s poor status within the family and lack of personal entitlement more eloquently than that paltry meal of rice gruel or a dry ‘chapati’ (whole wheat Indian bread) they get to have after everybody in the household has eaten. That they get only this is not surprising given that a large proportion of women are denied opportunities to develop themselves, both physically and mentally. As children, saddled with domestic responsibilities, including the care of siblings, they have no role in making the decisions that shape their future, whether it is going to school, getting better health care, or entering into marriage. An estimated 45 per cent of women marry before they are 18, the statutory minimum age of marriage.
Access to education could have changed this picture. Not only would it have delayed the age of marriage, it would have enhanced greatly the chance of an independent wage, which would in turn have helped raise standards of family income and nutrition. India’s female literacy rate is around 54.5 per cent, which means that nearly half the country’s female population is unlikely to make the right decisions about their personal entitlements or good feeding practices.
The lack of women’s bargaining power within the household also stems from the fact that they have little economic independence. While 80 per cent of India’s working women labour in the fields and can be seen as major food producers, less than 10 per cent of them own land. Says Bina Agarwal, Director of the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, who has worked extensively on women and property rights, “When a woman has assets, it impacts more directly on the greater access to nutrition for all members of the family than when only the man has assets.”
What then is the way forward? First, the issue of food security and nutrition has to become part of everyday discourse. After all, it was only when a writ petition in the Supreme Court on the right of every Indian to be free of hunger was filed in 2001, did an issue that directly impacts two-thirds of the country’s population even figure as a public issue. Today, we have a Food Security Bill awaiting enactment thanks to those earlier efforts.
But distributing food grain is only one part of the hunger story. This brings us to the second point: If legislation on food security has to be effective, it needs to move towards addressing the issue of adequate nutrition, so that people get food that does not merely satiate their hunger but nourishes them.
Third, the focus has to be firmly on women. Not only does their malnutrition impact on the health and well-being of future generations, women are also directly responsible for feeding and caring for families, especially children. Food security should, therefore, also mean a more equal gender friendly domestic and work environment.
Ironically, while caring for children continues to be widely regarded as a woman’s duty, working mothers face many childcare dilemmas. When family finances run low, female employees are sometimes forced to come back to work even two weeks after they have had their child and weaning is abrupt. Not only is the infant deprived of its mother’s milk, the mother herself has little time to recoup after childbirth. So while everybody recognises that breastfeeding is vital for an infant’s nutrition, there is very little policy-making on how this can be ensured while protecting the rights and welfare of the mother. Similarly, there is very little thinking on how fathers could be better involved in child caring and nutrition.
According to Dr Vrinda Datta at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, the situation is no different in rural India, with women leaving their infants soon after birth to work in the fields. A major government intervention like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, for instance, has provision for crèches for women workers on paper but, as a recent survey by the New Delhi-based Forum for Creche & Child Care Services revealed, they are almost non-existent. Says Savitri Ray, of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, who was associated with this survey, “I visited several worksites in Rajasthan, UP and Jharkhand, but didn’t see a single crèche.” Institutions like ‘balwadis’ are generally of little help because they lack flexibility of timings.
Ultimately food security is not just about delivering food grain to families so that they have something edible on a plate. It is also about putting social change and gender equality on the table.