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Food insecurity and hunger continue to plague India

India once again has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest number of hungry people in the world
Last Updated : 11 July 2022, 02:29 IST
Last Updated : 11 July 2022, 02:29 IST

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The latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report published jointly by five UN organisations on July 6 yet again presents worrisome estimates of widespread and worsening food insecurity in India.

Using the data presented in the report, it can be estimated that about 56 crore people, 40.6% of the population, in India suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019-21. The proportion of the population that is severely food insecure in the country has risen from 20.3% in 2018-20 to 22.3% in 2019-21. The corresponding proportion for the world was about 10.7% in 2019-21. India alone accounts for 37% of the world’s total severely food-insecure population.

Every year, the SOFI report presents estimates on the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) and the Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Insecurity (PMSFI) at the global-, regional- and country-level. The PoU estimates the proportion of the population that does not usually consume even the minimum calories that are required for normal and active life given their age, sex and body mass. The PMSFI estimates the proportion of the population that faces different levels of food insecurity. These estimates are based on the surveys in which information is collected on people’s experiences of constrained access to food. Commissioned by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, these surveys are conducted across the world as part of the Gallup World Poll. Using data collected through these surveys, the FAO estimates the number and proportion of persons facing moderately and severely food insecurity.

PoU and PMSFI are scientifically well-defined and robust indicators of food insecurity and are globally accepted as indicators for measuring the progress of Target 2.1 (to end hunger) under Sustainable Development Goals. Prevalence of Undernourishment is also the key measure of hunger that goes into the estimation of the widely-cited Global Hunger Index.

According to data provided in the latest report, the proportion of people facing chronic hunger has increased from 14.6% in 2018-20 to 16.3% in 2019-21. At 22.4 crore in 2019-21, India once again has the dubious distinction of being home to the largest number of hungry people in the world.

While FAO publishes PoU estimates for India in the SOFI report, estimates on PMSFI for India are not officially provided because the Government of India forbids FAO from publishing them. However, these estimates of PMSFI for India can be deduced from the report by looking at the difference between estimates for ‘South Asia’ and estimates for ‘South Asia excluding India’, which are both given in the report. These estimates show that the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in the country has been high and has risen from 27.7% in 2014-16 to over 40% in 2019-21. The last two data points, for 2018-20 and 2019-21, show that over four crore additional people faced moderate to severe food insecurity and an additional 2.4 crore faced chronic hunger in India in the first year of the Covid pandemic. It is also noteworthy that the recent trends show a sharp increase – about 11% in 2019-21 over the previous estimate – in the number of people facing severe food insecurity in India.

Estimates presented in the latest report are important because these numbers reflect the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic and the current economic crisis have had on the lives of people. They assume particular significance because the government has conducted no national surveys to capture the impact of the crisis on conditions of poverty and food insecurity. Even the survey of consumption conducted by the National Sample Survey Office for 2017–18 was not released by the government.

The rise in hunger and food insecurity shown in the estimates derived from the latest SOFI report, confirms the disastrous impact lockdown of 2020 and the continuing economic crisis have had on people’s lives. While the spokespersons of the government have been claiming credit for the large-scale distribution of free food grain through the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), there are three major problems in the system of food grain distribution that have limited its reach.

First, according to the National Food Security Act (NFSA), two-thirds of the population counted in the last census should be covered by the public distribution system (PDS). However, since the last census is more than 11 years old, and the census for 2021 has been delayed, the coverage of PDS has fallen way below the mandated 66%. If one goes by the official population projections, over 10 crore people in the country are excluded from the coverage.

Secondly, since 2014, over 4.4 crore ration cards have been deleted. This has been done in the name of weeding out bogus and duplicate cards, and Aadhaar seeding has been an instrument for this. In reality, however, while the original identification of beneficiaries of NFSA was done through a national socio-economic census, cancellation of cards and inclusion of other households in lieu of them have been done on an ad-hoc basis, without any specified criteria or procedure.

About 70% of the cards have been cancelled in states ruled by the BJP and its allies, suggesting that the cancellation of original cards and issuing of new cards may have been done with the political motive of creating a class of labharthis (beneficiaries) beholden to the current ruling dispensation.

Thirdly, the PMGKAY, the scheme launched to expand public distribution of grain during the Covid pandemic, has only increased the allocation of grain to households that were already covered under NFSA. The crisis during the pandemic called for the widest possible distribution of grain. However, the government has been steadfast about not including households other than NFSA beneficiaries under PMGKAY despite the fact that a large number of formerly employed people who lost their employment due to the crisis were likely to be facing increased food insecurity.

While the government could have simply made the PDS universal during the Covid pandemic, chasing impractical technical solutions has meant that the one-nation-one-card scheme has not been implemented thus far.

(The writer is a research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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Published 10 July 2022, 16:23 IST

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