Although India is seen as a rising economic power and it is hoped that a trickle down will benefit the poor and marginalized; in reality the gap between the rich and the poor is growing. The National Sample Survey Data reported in 2004 showed that 70% of the population was at or below the poverty line in terms of consumption of food. The data revealed that 750 million persons were consuming less than 2,400 k calories per person per day which was the poverty line standard set by the Planning Commission of India in 1979. In her recently published book `The Republic of Hunger` Professor Utsa Patnaik of the Jawaharlal Nehru University concluded that on an average, a family of 5 consume 100 kilograms of grain less per year as compared to the consumption during the Second World War. This is the specter of starving India.
Over half the children in India are malnourished and about one-quarter are so severely malnourished that they have shrunken brains and stunted bodies. A new generation of millions of Indians will grow to adulthood disabled. More than half of all women are anaemic with pregnant and lactating women suffering severe anaemia and malnutrition.
Particularly, hard hit are the dalits (the Scheduled Castes) and the Scheduled Tribes. Levels of malnutrition are highest amongst these sections. About 3000 starvation deaths every year are documented by NGOs. The vast majority of those dying by starvation are scheduled caste and scheduled tribes.
Among other reasons, this situation is intolerable because India is a surplus producer of grain. This grain however, is often exported or sold on the open market. But the poor cannot afford to buy grains at market rates and hence it is imperative that the public distribution system which provides grain very cheaply is strengthened.
To meet this situation of widespread and chronic hunger the Government of India initiated several programmes:
The Mid-Day Meal Scheme for children in schools. The Integrated Child Development Scheme for children in the age groups 0-6 years, adolescent girls and pregnant and lactating women.
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to provide employment particularly in rural areas.
A pension scheme and a free grain supply scheme for destitute persons above 65 years.
However, the implementation of these schemes was abysmal and malnutrition became even more widespread and starvation deaths increased from year to year. This called for an intervention by civil society groups. In collaboration with the People`s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and other organisations, the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) responded by filing a public interest petition in the Supreme Court of India asking for directions to be issued to the Government of India and the State Governments so that malnutrition could be reduced and starvation deaths prevented.