Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Addressing hunger in Tamilnadu

Dhastagir Sultan Sheriff
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India


“There’s enough food on this planet for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.” – Mohandas Gandhi

Around 800 million people suffer from hunger globally, a number that may double by 2050. Chronic hunger creates a vicious cycle of malnutrition, stunted growth, and childhood death before the age of five. India, with its economic growth and prosperity, has nearly 200 million undernourished and chronically hungry people and ranks only 97 out of 118 developing countries by the Global Hunger Index.

Tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV infection commonly affect those living in poverty, and ensuring access to potable water and shelter remain significant challenges. Even if a government allocates funds to tackle these issues, the health outcomes remain below expectations. It is said that fund allocation is like an iceberg; by the time it passes through the governmental bureaucracy only a few drops reach the needy. Policies, political will, and implementing programs to reduce poverty reduction remain utopian ideals.

The Indian state of Tamilnadu is known for culture, industrial growth, and an economic boon. Before the Dravidian Movement, which fought to restore the rights of the socially deprived, there were many barriers to those in lower castes accessing food, shelter, clothing, and education.

The founder of the Dravidian Movement, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, commonly known as Thanthai Periyar, (Thanthai means “father figure”) also promoted the Self-Respect Movement, which believes that backward castes have equal human rights to the upper caste.1 The Self-Respect Movement was founded by S. Ramanathan in 1921, who invited Periyar to head the movement in Tamilnadu. The movement was exemplified by the quote, “We are fit to think of ‘self-respect’ only when the notion of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ caste is banished from our land.”2

  Bharat Ratna Kamarajar
Indian National Congress Leader who ate the simple food Idli and Vada.

The words of  the poet Subramanya Bharathi “Destroy the world even if a single person does not have food” seem to have affected the Dravidian leaders and also the statesman Bharat Ratna Kamarajar. Kamarajar was a simple, honest leader whose dress, food habits, and shelter mirrored the mood and image of a common man of Tamilnadu.

He understood that the development of a state depends on the growth of the economic, industrial, agricultural, and health sectors of society. This depends in turn on the literacy and educational background of its citizens. He allocated funds for opening schools, colleges, and universities to provide free education. He also knew that a hungry stomach would hinder the concentration of these students, resulting in poor performance and drop-outs. He proposed a free food program for primary school students, many of whom did not have access to regular meals. He asked the Vice-chancellor of Madras University, Mr. N.G. Sundaravadivelu, to draft a program that would feed the students as well as motivate them to attend school. The mid-day meal scheme still continues today and has become a successful program to fight hunger and promote school education.

The government later started restaurants known as “amman unavagam” to combat hunger by providing food at a nominal cost. Government ration shops also distribute rice and other groceries at low cost to the poorer. Yet hunger remains a problem, in part due to the neglect of agriculture and farmers. Many farmers commit suicide because they cannot sustain a livelihood for themselves and their families. Farmers resort to other professions and cultivable lands are slowly converted into concrete jungles. Conditions for farming have worsened because of the lack of water for irrigation or flooding. Though progress in the green revolution and genetic engineering have aided some farmers, many remain in desperate circumstances.

Besides government intervention, there are many individuals who help provide food to the needy. One example of this is Mr. Vausdevan, an autorickshaw driver who everyday distributes food to hungry children in the city of Madurai. Mr. Vasudevan was first inspired by a passenger in his autorickshaw who carried big containers of food to distribute to those living in the slums. All night he distributes lemons, tamarind, and sambar rice to hungry people. He goes home before dawn, sleeps for few hours, and resumes his autorickshaw duty from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm. We need more people like Vasudevan, along with governmental programs, to work towards a hunger-free state.


Children with their mid-day meals Lemon, tamarind, and curd rice



  1. Klaus Von Grebmer, Jill Bernstein, David Nabarro, Nilam Prasai, Shazia Amin, Yisehac Yohannes et al. 2016 Global Hunger Index: Getting To Zero Hunger. Global Hunger Index. 2016. Pages:47
  2. “About Periyar: A Biographical Sketch from 1879 to 1909”. Dravidar Kazhagam. Archived from the original on 10 July 2005. Retrieved 4 January 2015.
  3. Kandaswamy, P. (2001). The Political Career of K. Kamaraj. Concept Publishing Company. p. 30. Archived from the original on 31 July 2017.
  4. “Tamil Nadu: Midday Manna”. India Today Archive. 15 November 1982. Retrieved 29 January 2016.



DHASTAGIR SULTAN SHERIFF, PhD is a retired professor from the Faculty of Medicine at Benghazi University in Libya. He now lives in India and is an expert in medical biochemistry. He is the author of a textbook titled Medical Biochemistry, five monographs, and over 150 research publications.


Fall 2018  |  Sections  |  Asia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.