A Geography of hunger: India and its (too) full rice bowl

    Times of India had a really good article on an interesting conundrum in the country. On the one hand, current stocks of food grains are 2.5 times larger than the government recommended minimum stock of grains in the public distribution system and strategic reserve (India sells part of its harvest through the public distribution system at a subsidized rate to those living below the poverty line). But on the other hand, some 25% of Indians go hungry or are malnourished. The article points out that India has 43% (!!) of India’s babies suffer from malnutrition, a figure higher than Ethiopia, Niger, and Bangladesh – countries typically associated with these problems.  While the article offers some explanation to the problem, I think we can some geographic perspective to this problem.

    The article points out two problems with the public distribution system, both related to Geography. First, the article notes that the number of families living under the poverty line is still an estimate based on a projection for the year 2000, using 1991 Census returns. While this makes sense to use throughout the 1990s, why didn’t the Indian government revisit the 10-year estimates at the 2001 and 2011 Censuses? While I would love to know the answer (probably politics and bureaucraticism), the impact is under discussion today. The Indian government is cognizant of the fact that the public distribution could be missing between 80 and 100 million persons by using these outdated projections. Assuming that the ratio of those living under the poverty line remained constant between 1991 and 2011, the actual number would increase (dramatically) because of the population growth.

    The other argument is the poverty line itself. As the article suggests the current peg (18 rupees for urban 12 for rural Indians) may be too high and that those living just above the peg are unable afford unsubsidized prices. That the peg differentiates between urban and rural residents is interesting. The built in assumption is that rural Indians make less money and probably have a built-in alternative, they can grow their own food. Urban residents are unlikely to have this alternative and the higher peg permits a greater inclusion of urban residents.

    Of  course we can add more hypotheses from a geographic perspective. For instance, there could still be lingering problems in the actual distribution of food via the transportation system. Referencing the two maps below, one showing Indian railways and agricultural production the other showing instances of famine and scarcity (both from the 1930s) we can see notable areas where the transportation network didn’t quite reach potential areas or, if the network did, perhaps it was too far away from the agricultural areas to make it in time? That people can still go hungry despite the existence of breadbaskets, even bumper harvests, within a country isn’t new. During the Bangladesh famine of 1974 a million died, despite a local peak in food production.

There are also additional demographic concerns. Is the current peg an average income for the entire household or is it per household? For instance, a family of five (2 adults, 3 children) makes 20 rupees a day. The total household income would preclude the family from benefiting from the subsidy, but the household’s average income is only 4 rupees a day. I suppose some would argue that utilizing an average would cause an explosion in the population’s growth rate as people try to impoverish themselves by having more children and thus, lowering their average income. While this is valid in the short term, we should keep in mind that as these children grow they will also make money thereby raising the family’s average income back above the poverty line. While there will always be people attempting to take advantage of every system of aid, I don’t think that’s reason to preclude the existence of the system in the first place, it just needs effective enforcement.

    Besides explanations of food production shortfalls for instance due to flooding, droughts, torrential rains, or cold snaps, Geography can also add perspective to hunger in the midst of bountiful harvests. As we outlined here, the transportation network and demographic aspects of the safety net should be considered in identifying and mitigating hunger.

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