Why Can’t India Feed Its People?

By Mehul Srivastava

Ghanshyam, a day laborer in Auar village, with Urmila Devi, his wife, seen at right carrying well water

Photograph by Sanjit Das

It was 1958, my father was still a child, and India was running out of food.

That year’s wheat crop had slumped by 15 percent, the rice harvest by 12 percent, and prices in the markets were soaring. Far from his village in eastern India, ships loaded with wheat were steaming toward the country, part of Dwight Eisenhower’s plan to sell surplus grains, tobacco, and dairy products to friendly countries. All India Radio gave daily updates on the convoys, and the army barricaded ports in Mumbai and Kolkata against the hungry crowds.

“It was this very coarse, red wheat,” says Narsingh Deo Mishra, a childhood friend of my father’s and now a local politician in Auar, their home village. “We were told it was meant for American pigs,” says Mishra. “Back then, we weren’t any better than American pigs. So we ate it. We ate it all, and we begged for more.”

My father, Dinesh, grew up during the toughest years in modern India’s history, a time of droughts and floods. At 18 he weighed about 40 kilograms (90 pounds). In a photograph taken at the time, his cheeks are sunken, his Adam’s apple is prominent, and his eyes bulge from a gaunt skull. As he grew into his teens and early adulthood, however, the Green Revolution took hold: The fields were sown with hybrid seeds and enriched with chemical fertilizers, enabling the country first to feed itself and later to sell its grain on the global markets. India is a generation removed from those “ship-to-mouth” days; fewer than 2 percent of Indians now go without two square meals a day, and far fewer still die of starvation.

And yet, in places like Auar, malnutrition persists. The vast majority of Indians, especially villagers, are suspended in nutritional purgatory — they eat enough to fill their stomachs but not enough to stay healthy. In the early 1970s the number of calories the average Indian ate began rolling backward. In 1973 villagers ate just under 2,300 calories a day, according to the National Sample Survey Office, a branch of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. By 2010 that number had dropped to about 2,020, compared with the government floor of 2,400 a day to qualify for food aid. The mismatch manifests itself in some of the world’s worst health score cards: Half of all children younger than three years old in India weigh too little for their age; 8 in 10 are anemic.

During months of reporting on malnutrition in India, I spoke almost daily to my father, who had long since escaped Auar and now runs a national scientific research center in Kolkata, where I grew up. This June I returned by myself to the dusty, hot village of my father’s childhood, hoping to understand more. I drove about 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast from New Delhi to Auar, deep in the heart of Uttar Pradesh state. The local district of Pratapgarh is in the poorest third of the country’s 640 districts, according to the government. I’d been to the village before — first as a child and again in 2000, when I was getting ready to leave for college in Virginia. My father, who wanted me to remember my family’s origins, stood out then from cousins and old friends in his starched white shirt and tailored trousers, no longer comfortable sitting cross-legged in the dust.

On that visit he pointed out the few reminders from his childhood. There was the elementary school built, according to family legend, with the proceeds from a single gold coin saved by a great-granduncle during years of toil in Burma in the 1920s; and there were the brick additions made to the mud house that belonged to my grandfather. By then the house was falling apart and emptied of family, who were now scattered in cities across India.

When I returned this year, I set up camp outside, sleeping on a borrowed cot under the mango trees my father climbed as a child. Although I hired a snake charmer to clear the ruins of the hut of its newest inhabitants, I worried that he may have done a less than perfect job. For the next two weeks I walked the dry, barren fields of the village, waiting like the locals for the rains that this year, at least, never fully came. I carried out a rudimentary survey, weighing children on a bathroom scale I’d brought, and spoke to the oldest people I could find, asking them to contrast their memories of long-ago meals to those they ate today. And for those two weeks I ate what the average poor and landless Indian villager could afford.

In some ways, Auar has kept pace with modern India. I counted about 60 motorbikes parked outside houses. And 400 or so of the village’s roughly 2,000 residents carry mobile phones, according to the local merchant who offered a recharging service for the equivalent of about 20¢, using car batteries he carried on the back of his bicycle. Auar has power now — sometimes. Every other day the electricity poles hum and spark for a couple of hours, bringing life to the television in the small village store and the handful of wells irrigating the fields of wealthier farmers. It’s a luxury, nonetheless: About 400 million Indians have no access to electricity at all.

In other ways, Auar is unchanged from my father’s time. There’s still no running water in most homes, and it takes dozens of cranks of a hand pump to fill each bucket of water. Every act of nature requires a 15-minute walk to a field where pigs root around in the remains of yesterday’s visit. In 38 of the 40 households I visited, I noted the teenagers’ ribs and the distended bellies and loose, stretchy skin of the toddlers, the first and most obvious symptoms of a diet sufficient in calories but lacking in protein. When it was first reported in 1935 in Ghana, doctors called this form of malnutrition kwashiorkor, taking the local word for the illness a child gets when it’s weaned too early because a new baby has arrived. In Auar the villagers had no name for it.

I tracked down Ghanshyam, the son of a laborer who had worked about two acres of land my grandfather owned. (Like many Indians, Ghanshyam goes by only his first name.) My father remembers the laborer’s wife picking up scraps from our family’s dinner and taking them home to her sons. “She would whisper to me to take larger servings and leave something for her children,” says my father. “Even now, I feel guilty — I never left enough.” Rakesh, his oldest brother, would leave as much as he could, my father says. “But I was young, I didn’t really think.”

Ghanshyam took me to his one-room mud-and-straw hut in the center of the village. Dressed in a torn shirt and lungi — a cloth wrapped around his waist — and barefoot, it was unclear whether he was one of the same children who grew up with my father. He couldn’t tell me his age. He was too young to recall, as my father did, the school holiday to commemorate a visit by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1956. But he did remember the short-lived friendship of India and China turning into a border dispute six years later. That might make him somewhere around 50 or 52.

Ghanshyam, to me, embodies India’s poor and malnourished. He owns no land, except for the plot on which his hut stood. He has tuberculosis, which infects about 2 million Indians every year, but he still scrabbles for work in the fields of landowners, making between $2.50 and $3.50 a day. When strong enough, he hitches a ride to the city of Pratapgarh, 45 minutes away, in search of construction work paying as much as $3.75 a day. On other days, Ghanshyam waits for villagers to come find him for odd jobs. A neighbor once paid him $1.50 to build a small roof. Another time, he spent four or five hours helping to clear a field of weeds and stones. He made 80¢ that day.

In recent weeks, Ghanshyam found only a few days’ work. The monsoon was late, so there was little to be done in the fields; construction had slowed in anticipation of those same rains, the life force of rural India. With that meager income, Ghanshyam supported his wife, Urmila Devi, two teenage sons, and the wife of an older son whom I never saw. When I asked what happened to his eldest, Ghanshyam looked away. Urmila, a quiet woman who rarely spoke to me unless her husband was nearby, later told me the son had gone to a city to look for work and never returned. He’d left behind two young boys — more mouths to feed on the days the boys didn’t spend at their maternal grandparents’ house.

Every evening, I gave Ghanshyam about 50¢, the amount the government set last year as the daily poverty line above which Indians no longer qualify for the most subsidized form of food aid. In exchange, his wife included me in their meals. Thus, I would eat as many Indians do. In the morning we drank small cups of watery tea with milk, sweetened with a nugget of jaggery, a hard candy made from unrefined cane sugar. In the afternoon we each ate three rotis, a heavy, unleavened bread, dipping them into a thin gruel of lentils and spice called dal. The rotis were thick, dry, and almost tasteless, made with the cheapest, coarsest grain available. The dal was watery, with the pulses settling to the bottom, far different from my mother’s dal, which was thick, rich with butter and ghee, and spiced carefully.

At night, before walking to the family’s home, I used a stick to shake a few sour mangoes from the trees. Urmila boiled them in the dal to add flavor, pouring the mixture over some boiled rice.

It had been a year, at least, since Ghanshyam last ate meat, eight months since he was able to catch fish in the nearby river, and six months since he’d had an egg, he told me. Later I showed photos of the meals to Rachita Singh, a nutritionist at the Saket Max Hospital in New Delhi. She estimated they would provide about 1,700 to 1,800 calories a day. Such a diet, heavy in cereals and other carbohydrates, is what most rural Indians eat. In 2010, according to India’s statistics ministry, 64 percent of the calories consumed by rural Indians came from cereals, about 9 percent from oils and fats, and less than 5 percent each from sugar and pulses such as the lentils we ate. Fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, and fish together made up about 2.5 percent. By all counts — overall calories or nutrients — it’s a poor diet.

Auar, like most Indian villages I’ve visited, is actually a collection of hamlets scattered around a central body of water, usually a deep well or two. In Auar life centered on what the villagers generously called the river. More of a rivulet, it was too small to show up on my maps. Sluggish and dirty when I visited at the end of the dry season, it served a multitude of purposes along the narrow stretch that ran past the village. Upriver, where the water was thought to be cleaner, children would do back flips into it, and women brought their laundry, the gentle slapping of wet cloth on stones filling the air. Early in the morning, the few households that owned a buffalo or cow would bring them for a bath. Downriver from the village, around a quick bend, the bank was a squelching, stinking open toilet.

The hamlets, called bastis, are segregated mostly by caste or religion. Others are settlements of five or six huts belonging to members of the same family. Sixty-two years after India’s first constitution declared caste discrimination illegal, the system still dictates daily life and constrains opportunities for hundreds of millions of people.

My first day in the village, I was taken to the upper-caste basti to meet the village headman, a tall, broad-chested Brahmin named Vinod Upadhyay. I wanted him to know I’d be living in the village and asking questions. He offered me a plastic chair outside his two-story brick house, where a shiny motorcycle stood next to an electric water pump. A servant brought out tea and biscuits. After my first sip, I asked Upadhyay why he wasn’t joining me.

“When I eat with lower castes, it disagrees with my stomach,” he answered nonchalantly.

My father’s family was of a middling caste called the Kayastha — we had neither the land nor privileges of the Brahmin but were spared the humiliating poverty of the lowest castes. Our hamlet reflected that: In old photographs my father took during trips back to Auar, the mud hut had started to take the shape of a house — a small brick addition in the early 1970s, another expansion in the early 1980s. Our neighbor was a distant cousin, his neighbor another cousin. Our hamlet was a 10-minute walk from Ghanshyam’s, where the huts were smaller, packed closer together, sharing a single hand-pumped well.

My life in the village quickly fell into a pattern that in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries. Rising with the sun, my stomach already growling with hunger, I’d seek a secluded spot to empty my slowly cramping bowels. With little running water, and almost no indoor toilets, entire fields were open latrines. Women rose earlier still, defecating in the dark in the hope of some privacy. Open defecation is a national crisis for some 665 million Indians; soiled water and food supplies are a major contributor to the spread of pathogens that kill about 1,000 children a day from diarrhea, hepatitis, and other diseases.

I’d bathe under a hand-pumped well, pumping with one hand while trying to rub myself clean. At Ghanshyam’s home, Urmila would already be burning some dry twigs to boil our morning tea. Before the sun rose too high, I’d accompany Ghanshyam on his search for work.

One morning we hitched a ride to Pratapgarh, joining a group of day laborers waiting at a traffic intersection to be picked for work. Those with obvious skills — painters with their brushes and cans of turpentine; carpenters with their tools — were chosen first. Last were people like Ghanshyam, who had little to offer but their strength. I followed him to where about 20 men were working on the foundation for a family home. My offer of labor was refused — my city clothes, tinted glasses, and well-fed frame betrayed me as an outsider.

I watched Ghanshyam carry bricks for an hour, his pace slacking as the sun climbed. By 10 a.m. the temperature was 102F. When the foreman yelled at Ghanshyam for being too slow, I took his place, an unpaid substitute. We dug ditches and broke bricks to mix in the mortar. It had been a week since I’d migrated to the village diet, and by noon I was exhausted. The men around me had withered, too, their movements slower, their ribs glistening in the sun. Ghanshyam opened a lunch box, and we ate onions and rotis. We had drunk the dal while waiting to be picked for work.

The temperature climbed to 118F, and the workers talked the foreman into letting them rest in the shade a half-hour longer. For two more hours, Ghanshyam and I took turns laboring. Finally, at 4 p.m., the foreman handed out the wages: Ghanshyam pocketed $1.75 for both of us; the other men each earned $2.20. Ghanshyam’s tuberculosis had slowed him down too much; I had done little to help. In Auar, the cereal-laden meals sat heavily in my stomach, and I felt less hungry than I’d imagined I would. The most obvious impact was a constant sense of lethargy. I moved more slowly and took longer to recover from short bursts of labor like that at the construction site. My weight dropped about five pounds in the two weeks I lived in the village.

In the evening, my phone would light up around 7 p.m. with a text message from the Papa John’s in Delhi. For $11 — or 22 times the government’s poverty line — I could order a medium pepperoni and cheese pizza, except it would be delivered to my air-conditioned apartment in a posh Delhi suburb, not to this sweaty, hungry corner of India. I dreamed often of that pizza.

Experts have argued about the reasons for India’s worsening nutrition without reaching a conclusion. Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Poverty Action Lab, once described it to me as the “million-dollar question.” In 2009 two economists, Angus Deaton, at Princeton University, and Jean Drèze, at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, just two hours from Auar, wrote a paper arguing that Indians were consuming fewer calories today than in the 1980s because they needed fewer calories. Poor Indians now had bicycles and got sick less often, they said, and that might solve the puzzle that has confounded economists studying Indian nutrition — falling calorie counts at a time of rising real incomes.

According to Deaton and Drèze, economists have seen this trend twice before, in post-Mao China in the 1980s and 1990s, and in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, from 1775 to 1850. Before I left for the village, I called Deaton. He was irritated that my questions focused only on calories; he believes the environment in which those calories are consumed and burned, and the manual labor the person has to endure, are equally important, if not more so. “I am not saying, for instance, that Indians are well-nourished,” he said. “What I am saying is that the fact that they are eating fewer calories doesn’t mean anything unless you know more about the rest of their lives.”

Following Ghanshyam around, I was less convinced by Deaton’s explanation. Deepankar Basu and Amit Basole, two University of Massachusetts economists, are also skeptical. In a draft paper published in July, they found that while Indian incomes have gone up, a rise in spending on other essential items, such as health care and transportation, means the amount of money left over for food has remained stagnant at a time of high inflation.

There’s little data to show that Indians have moved into less physically strenuous jobs. India has yet to experience the kind of industrial revolution seen in large parts of China that has freed an entire generation from the fields. Sixty-nine percent of the nation’s 1.2 billion people still live in the countryside, vs. 49 percent of China’s 1.3 billion. The lives of Ghanshyam and other villagers in Auar certainly seemed to need more than what 1,700 calories or even the government-recommended minimum intake of 2,400 calories could sustain. India’s state medical research council says workers doing moderate or heavy labor need 2,730 to 3,490 calories a day.

Some of the causes for the caloric mismatch are clear. Corruption, incompetence, and official indifference mean record stockpiles of grain rot in warehouses, and supplies meant for the poor are often stolen. As much as $14.5 billion worth of food in one conspiracy was looted by corrupt politicians over 10 years from my father’s state of Uttar Pradesh alone, according to court documents. India spends $14 billion a year to help feed those who can’t afford to buy rice or wheat in the market. Every year, the World Bank estimates, almost 40 percent of that aid simply falls through the cracks of a system of paper-and-thumbprint accounting, starving the poorest, most isolated Indians. Nor has an Indian politician embraced the problem of hunger the way Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did in 2003 with his Zero Hunger program, or Ghana’s John Kufuor did when he was president in the first decade of the 2000s. Both managed to halve the number of hungry people in their countries in only a few years of focused governmental effort.

To be fair, while India has struggled to improve nutrition for the entire country, it has largely managed to end death by starvation. But to cure India of hunger would require the nation to be cured of all else that ails it — corruption, bureaucracy, poverty, caste differences, the Malthusian nightmare of having more people than it can employ. In essence, it may be that Indians are still hungry because India is not yet a fully functional country. My father takes a darker view. “Nobody cares,” he says.

Most days during my stay, Ghanshyam didn’t find work. We would lie in the shade, stoned in the heat, stirring only to swat away flies and move our cots with the shadows. Soon after sundown, the darkness was complete, and almost everybody would head to sleep.

I’d walk back to the ruins of my father’s old house and imagine his childhood. In short stories he’s published, my father recreates a bucolic life interrupted by misfortune — disease, the curses of slighted gypsy women, ghosts, and poachers. The stories echo his own childhood. He survived smallpox; his body is still scarred from the near-death experience. A sister, born underweight and listless, died of malnutrition at six months. She had been named Munni, Hindi for “our little girl.”

In 1964 my grandfather landed a job as a conductor for the state-owned Indian Railways and moved the entire family — my grandmother, three sons (two more came later), and three daughters — to the city of Allahabad in eastern Uttar Pradesh. In socialist India, a government job was perhaps the only way out of poverty. My grandfather leveraged his accomplishment with a relentless focus on educating his sons.

That urge was a relic of our caste beginnings. Without large tracts of land to cultivate, Kayasthas in Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring state of Bengal became a caste of peons — clerks, bookkeepers, minor functionaries for the local maharajahs. That emphasis on being able to read and write has left an imprint throughout my family’s known history, starting with the great-granduncle who spent his life’s savings to build the primary school my father studied in and which still educates the village’s children.

Hardship for my father didn’t end with the move to the city or with the ballooning shipments of American grain. New to the city, my father and his brothers stood in lines outside ration shops to get rice and wheat. Often, he remembers, the shops would run out of supplies before their turn.

At 14, my father won a National Merit Scholarship, an Indian government program designed to help poor, talented students in villages pay for their high school and early college educations. At 19, he read an ad in a newspaper for a job in Mumbai with the government’s science and research programs. He clipped the ad and stowed away on a train, in much the same way that millions of migrants seek a better life in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore today. The interview went well, and he landed a job that allowed him to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear physics at what is now the University of Mumbai.

For my father, the years of lining up for food rations were over. His older brother, who studied engineering, had gotten a job with the government of Uttar Pradesh, and their combined incomes paid for the education of their younger brothers and the weddings of their sisters. That final leap, from poverty to the lower-middle class, was repeated by each of my uncles — the three remaining brothers also became engineers. My cousins and I were born into families that could easily afford food, and the deprivation of Auar became a memory, rarely discussed.

And yet, at family reunions, it’s clear that childhood hunger stalked our parents and their siblings into adulthood. My cousins and I tower over our uncles; I am 4 inches (10 centimeters) taller than my father. One cousin was an amateur boxer in the Indian Navy; another passed the rigorous physical training required to join the Indian intelligence service and is posted in the Himalayas. A single generation of good nutrition catapulted us into the top 10 percent of Indians for height and health.

In Auar, I felt like a giant, stooping through doorways, my feet dangling over the edge of my borrowed cot. At dusk I’d walk with Ghanshyam along the borders of the village. With me at least, Ghanshyam was a quiet man, miserly with his words. He mostly resisted my attempts to get him to share more than his most basic thoughts. One night, however, I asked him about his favorite meal, and he opened up. He told me he’d been happiest when planning his eldest son’s wedding. As the groom’s father, he was the most important guest, and he described at length the dinner thrown by the girl’s family. “Mutton korma, chicken curry, fish curry, naan, saag paneer (spinach cooked in cottage cheese), pulao (rice pilaf),” he listed, along with the desserts — a sweetened rice pudding called kheer; jalebis, or sweet, fried dough; and ice cream.

On my last day in the village, I drove to Pratapgarh and had a restaurant pack up that exact meal. That night under the mango trees, I threw a small banquet for Ghanshyam’s family and his neighbors. Thirteen of us sat under the biggest tree, and in the light of my car’s headlights, Ghanshyam and I shared a small bottle of local liquor made from a flower called mahua that he’d brought for the occasion. He laughed when I spat out my first sip, and I noticed for the first time that he had no teeth except for the front row.

About an hour after dinner, as I packed my gear for the trip back to Delhi, I heard a rustling behind me. I thought it was a stray dog going through the empty plates and Styrofoam boxes, and I turned on my flashlight to scare it away.

Instead, the beam lit up Urmila. She’d come back, she said, for the chicken bones I’d thrown away. For a family too poor to buy meat, even boiled-up bones make a valuable addition to the diet. “With some spices, it will taste just like chicken curry,” she said.


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