Survival of the Fattest

Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

ACROSS THE world, the rich waste food, particularly those of the staple variety, because it apparently comes too cheap to be valued highly. But even that cheap food is unaffordable to the poor. In spite of a 4 billion tonne global harvest every year, more than 14 percent of the world’s population stays chronically hungry. Ironically, over-consumption of food by many who can afford to is now as big a problem as, if not bigger than, malnutrition.

According to the World Health Organisation, worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980 and 65 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight. Of these, more than 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese.

In 1990, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study, childhood underweight was the sixth leading risk factor for premature death worldwide, while being overweight or obese came in ninth. By 2005, childhood underweight had slipped to the 11th spot and high body mass index moved up to seventh. Even after factoring in the impact of genetic predisposition and sedentary lifestyles, 40 million overweight children under the age of five indicates that too many people are consuming too much for their own and others’ good.

[EasyGallery id=’inequity’]

India was placed 66th out of 88 countries in the 2008 global hunger list with 200 million people, nearly onefourth of its population, starving. We also suffer stark regional disparity. On its own, Punjab would have ranked 34th. The “extremely alarming” state of Madhya Pradesh, leading the pack of 12 other states in the “alarming” category, would be placed 82nd on that list. Since then, we have added another 50-odd million hungry people to our population.

Even so, the share of foodgrain siphoned off from targeted public distribution system (TPDS) to be sold in the market hovered at 44 percent in 2007-08. Currently, 65 million BPL families are entitled to 20 kg of foodgrain per month under the TPDS — around 16 million tonnes in a year in all. Yet, India allows 21 million tonnes of wheat to rot every year. Even after exporting foodgrain worth $40 billion, we fail to invest enough to fix our storage and distribution infrastructure.

TEHELKA visited Karnal, the hub of basmati rice export in Haryana and empty ration shops in Delhi’s Najafgarh to understand the great divide. We also report from Odisha’s Rayagada district where only tamarind seeds and mango kernels stood between tribals and starvation until they set up their own grain banks.


  1. Surely there is a way to write about starvation and obesity that does not make fat people instantly responsible for the starving children. This is just lazy journalism. What, instead of talking about how our food production and distribution models are all skewed,and screwed, starting with how the government forces cash crops on subsistence farmers down to the illegal hoarding black market, there is a convenient correlation between the fat and the underfed. What a shame, Tehelka. Just when we could really believe you were the only clever people around.


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