India’s ‘hunger cafes’

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty A quarter might not get you much more than a ketchup packet in the United States these days, but in India it’s enough to buy a meal for one of Mumbai’s poor. Well aware of this fact, dozens of destitute Indian men line the streets in front of the city’s “hunger cafes” each ...

594589_080618_india2.jpg
594589_080618_india2.jpg

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty

DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty

A quarter might not get you much more than a ketchup packet in the United States these days, but in India it’s enough to buy a meal for one of Mumbai’s poor. Well aware of this fact, dozens of destitute Indian men line the streets in front of the city’s “hunger cafes” each day, hoping the affluent will roll down their car windows and offer a rupee note or two.

Many of these cafes have stood for decades, and their poverty-stricken patrons keep coming back. “Car-bound charity” is typical in India, where “feudal giving” (e.g, when a patron pays school tuition for the children of his household’s maid) also accounts for much of the nation’s charitable work, reinforcing household and societal chains of command. Anonymous or “checkbook charity” is more popular in Western countries, where parading the poor out on the streets is considered degrading.

Drive-by charity, however altrusitic, is clearly not going to cut it as India tries to deal with the global food crisis. As of 2006, the country already ranked 96th — below Nepal and Pakistan — on the Global Hunger Index. And more recently, malnutrition among children has skyrocketed in India’s central regions. The government has promised to dole out 30 kg of subsidized flour a month to poor families, but corruption and inefficiency often foil such efforts.

The cafes also fail to address one demographic that continually feels the food-shortage burden: women. Second-class citizens in many parts of India, women often eat last and get the least to eat. Looks like India still has some historical vestiges to confront if its going to become the new world power that so many expect it to be.

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