India and Pakistan: Divided By Borders United By Hunger

Amandeep Singh, Ila Kazmi, Hannan Zafar, Waqar Hussain & Fatima Sheikh


Twenty-seven-year-old Madhu, was first tied and then brutally beaten to death by a mob in the southern Indian state of Kerala. His fault? Allegedly stealing food worth $3! In a similar accident, a few years back in 2011, a video appeared showing a Pakistani teen being chased and shot twice for stealing food.

Even seven decades after freedom, hunger crisis continues to haunt India and Pakistan. Successive regimes on both sides of the border have tried to bring about massive policy changes and improve the living standards of its citizens. However, both countries have failed to produce major breakthroughs, particularly in hunger alleviation According to State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report, out of the 850 million hungry people in the world, 300 million are from India and Pakistan alone. This is despite the fact that both countries produce surplus food. “Problem arises owing to deficiencies in policy implementation and distribution rather than production,” says Khurshid Ahmad, a senior official working in Government of India’s food distribution department.

India and Pakistan export food grains in large quantities. For instance, India ranks first and Pakistan fourth in the list of rice-exporting nations. Similarly, India and Pakistan export wheat in excess of thousand million tons every year.  Yet, millions in both countries continue to starve.



India’s Export Statistics

2016-172017-18 (April-November)
ProductQuantity  (Kgs)Quantity  (Kgs)
Buffalo Meat1323576113917977566
Basmati Rice39851956002624439006
Non-Basmati Rice67708042795599426465
Dairy Products3916697727351836
Dried & Preserved Vegetables8679122559827112
Sheep/Goat Meat2200857815732967
Fruits & Vegetables Seeds112886206307828
Poultry Products448724726270558947
Other Cereals16843554477195969
Other Meat12073473302
Processed Meat140895132918
Source: DGCIS

“It’s a paradox of plenty. Though producing sufficient food, India and Pakistan rank at the far end of all global hunger indices. Mountains of grain continue to rot in godowns while more recently, irate farmers spilled tonnes of potatoes on the streets in Indian Punjab. We have seen similar incidents in Pakistan too. And if you think this is a recent phenomenon, you are mistaken. I have seen this happening for nearly 25 years now across both the countries at regular intervals,” says Davender Sharma, food and agriculture policy analyst based in New Delhi.

An RTI reply has revealed that around 62,000 tonnes of foodgrains, mainly rice and wheat have been damaged in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India (FCI) in the last six years. Reports cite various reasons for the damage of food grains, including pest attacks, overstocking, exposure to rains, floods, and negligence on the part of the persons concerned in taking precautionary measures.

Food and Agriculture Association of United Nations, in its 2017 report, estimated that 190.7 million people are undernourished in India amounting to 14.5% of the entire population. Forty-three percent of Indian children under the age of five are underweight and 48 percent (i.e. 61 million children) are stunted due to chronic undernutrition, India accounts for more than 3 out of every 10 stunted children in the world.

“The problem will not cease until we are successful in decentralising the distribution system. Brazil is a classic example. They eliminated hunger in 20 years by applying decentralised system based on the model of local production, local equipment and local distribution. Here in India food is transported from one state to another for stocking purpose and then redistributed to the first state,” says Sharma.

In a bid to climb up the economic ladder, both countries are focusing more on infrastructural development rather than agriculture. This has led to the migration of people from rural areas to urban and suburban areas in search of work, which further aggravates the problem.

“My husband works as a construction labourer and toils hard to feed us. But he doesn’t get work every day. We remain hungry on the days when nobody offers him work,” says Sita, 27, who migrated with her family from eastern Uttar Pradesh to New Delhi in search of livelihood. Along with her three kids and husband, Sita lives at a dumping yard in Okhla, south Delhi. “Some days if we get lucky, people from gurudwara or mosque distribute food to us,” she adds.

Many religious institutions are at the forefront to help poor people get two meals a day.  At Bangla Sahib Gurdwara, a historic Sikh shrine in central Delhi, langar (free kitchen) housed within the golden-domed complex, serves fresh meals to around 20,000 people a day.

“Hundreds of volunteers pour in to assist in cooking and serving chapattis, rice and dal round the clock. Apart from serving in the Gurduwara we also dispatch food packets to different locations, especially in the times of crisis” Harjinder Singh, an employee of the Gurudwara says.

In a bid to alleviate hunger various non-governmental organisations also work across the border either in tandem with respective governments or independently. For Juhi, a 28-year-old volunteer of the non-profit organisation, Robinhood Army (RHA), weekends are not reserved for leisure. She, along with other volunteers, instead, collects surplus food from various restaurants in Delhi and distributes it among the underprivileged.

“Whenever I enter my assigned cluster, kids literally jump over me in joy. I think this is the best way to contribute to society” says Juhi. “It is my kind of nationalism,” she adds. “Understanding same set of problems engulf the other side of the border too, on February 15, 2015, we expanded our mission to the neighbouring country and commenced activities in Karachi, Pakistan,” says Rahul Chabay, head Delhi chapter of Robinhood army.

In August 2017, buoyed by their success, the Robin Hood Army undertook a mission – Mission1Million – which aimed at mobilising Indians and Pakistanis together to serve food to one million countrymen, to mark Independence Day. The agenda also included raising awareness about the hunger problem. The volunteers of RHA across both countries successfully managed to serve 1.34 Million meals during this mega event.

However, questions remain about whether weekly or one-off events can alleviate such a humongous problem. Jayati Ghosh, Professor at Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawahar Lal Nehru University in New Delhi believes rapid aggregate income growth over the past two decades has not addressed the basic issue of ensuring the food security of the population. “Nutrition indicators have stagnated and per capita calorie consumption has actually declined during and post-liberalisation period suggests that the problem of hunger may have got worse rather than better,” Ghosh adds. So, despite the progress made in many sectors, both countries continue to struggle with the issue of hunger.


Imam Bakhsh sells tea near the towering shrine of Sufi saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi which is a major presence in the physical and spiritual landscapes of Karachi.  Baksh works hard for the money only to provide two meals for this family. But to save enough for his children at home, Bakhsh survives on charity meals served at the footsteps of the shrine everyday.

“There is nothing for the poor; no place to eat,” said 52-years-old Bakhsh who manages a walking tea stall near the eighth century mystic saint’s shrine in the posh Clifton neighbourhood of Karachi. Baksh eats twice a day at the Saylani Mobile Food vans. He manages to save Rs. 300 daily to spend on the food and other necessities of his children.

According to the Federal Bureau of Statistics, one in four Pakistanis lives below the poverty line. An estimated 2.9 million people are jobless, leading to an unemployment rate of 5.5% in 2009.

The Saylani Welfare Trust International, a charitable organisation, claims to feed about 60,000 people at its 19 langar stations across Karachi.  “We serve food twice a day to millions of less fortunate,” said Saqib Raza, Manager Mobile Food Van at Saylani. “90% people are deserving who eat at Saylani. Amongst them 20% are those who move around the shrine in hope of food. Moreover, people who make a meagre salary of Rs. 10,000 to 12,000 eat at Saylani’s Food service to save Rs.100 daily which they spend on necessities or education of their children.”

Bilquis Bano Edhi, who plays an important role in her late husband, Abdul Sattar Edhi’s burgeoning charity empire, feels that the government has failed to provide basic facilities for decades. “Government’s promises to provide basic facilities to the public never materialize,” she said. “I have been hearing slogan but the poor never receive any assistance from the government,” Edhi added.

For Bano, the dream of making Pakistan a true welfare state can never be materialized as long as the government does not initiate people centric policies.

Like Bakhsh, Naeem Akhtar, also struggles to make ends meet everyday near the Sufi Shrine. The 38-year-old widow manages a water cart, along with her physically challenged daughter. On a good day, Akhtar, who shuttles water around the shrine, earns Rs. 800 to 900 daily. Her husband, a plumber, died twelve years ago. “Officials come and collect data but no one helps us,” said Akhtar. She also eats the food served at the shrine.  

According to surveys conducted for the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020, nearly half of Karachi’s people live below the poverty line. The report shows that 34.4% of households earn less than Rs5,000 a month while 41.4% earn between Rs5,000 and Rs10,000.

Faisal Edhi, who heads the Edhi Foundation and the eldest son of Abdul Sattar and Bano Edhi, held different views regarding the rampant condition of poverty and hunger issues both in Pakistan and India: He said, “In India the improper distribution of wealth is the reason of poverty (while) in our country the reason of poverty is mismanagement as we don’t work for the welfare of our citizens.”

“Welfare organizations or charity cannot solve the hunger or poverty crisis,” he said.

According to Irum Saba, Assistant Professor at Economics and Finance Department of Institute of Business Administration, Pakistan and India share almost the same amount of problems but instead of spending on the poor “We are spending much of our budgets on ammunition that we cannot afford to use.”

Experts suggest that Pakistan can relate to the hunger crisis in India. According to Global Hunger Index, the data provided by the Government of Pakistan 2016, over 39% population of Pakistan “still lives in the shadow of multidimensional poverty.” The report further states that in different parts of the country draught and poverty “threaten the country with hunger.” The same source stated India’s hunger index 31.4% in 2017 while Pakistan stood at 32.6% in the same year.

While these figures indicate that the two countries have a long fight against hunger, charity organizations like Saylani and Edhi continue to help people like Bakhsh and Akhtar.

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