India’s widening economic disparity, food security

A decrease in the share of food expenditure doesn't necessarily translate to improved food security.
Last Updated 04 March 2024, 08:53 IST

The latest release of the Household Consumption Expenditure Survey (HCES) 2022-2023 factsheet by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI) offers valuable insights into India’s economic landscape and raises critical concerns regarding widening economic disparities and the ongoing challenge of food security.

While the report reveals a nationwide gap between the top and bottom 5 per cent of the population in terms of Monthly Per Capita Expenditure (MPCE), the starkest disparities are observed in rural areas, where the bottom 5 per cent struggle to meet basic needs with an MPCE falling below the estimated national minimum living wage. This alarming discrepancy highlights the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities across regions, and necessitates a deeper examination of the underlying factors contributing to this divide.

Several factors may contribute to this disparity. Limited access to high-paying jobs and lack of quality education and training in rural settings can hinder employability and earning potential. Furthermore, gender inequalities or social discrimination might restrict access to income-generating opportunities for certain groups. These factors combined create a vicious cycle of poverty, perpetuating the struggle to meet basic needs.

Threat of food insecurity

The report further shows a consistent decline in the share of food expenditure in both rural and urban areas since 1999-2000. The share of food in the consumption basket in rural areas has decreased from 53.2 per cent in 1999-2000 to 44.4 per cent in 2020-2021. The share of food has decreased from 42.4 per cent in 1999-2000 to 33.6 per cent in 2020-2021 in urban areas.

If left unaddressed, this can have dire consequences for vulnerable populations across India. One of the most significant concerns is the potential for increased food insecurity. The inability to secure essential food items due to limited income and resource constraints can significantly impact physical and mental well-being, leading to malnutrition and associated health complications. Additionally, limited access to quality healthcare and education, often linked to economic disadvantage, can further exacerbate the existing inequalities, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Beyond food expenditure

While the HCES data showcases a consistent decline in the share of food expenditure across both rural and urban areas since 1999-2000, this finding requires deeper analysis. A decrease in the share of food expenditure doesn't necessarily translate to improved food security. Price volatility of essential food items like cereals, despite a potential decrease in the share of expenditure, can significantly impact purchasing power, especially for those with limited income and savings.

This volatility, coupled with stagnating wages, can lead to increased food insecurity, even with a seemingly lower share of expenditure being allocated to food. Furthermore, a shift towards higher-value food items doesn't guarantee better nutritional quality. Affordable processed foods, often readily available in urban areas, might lack essential nutrients and contribute to micronutrient deficiencies if consumed excessively, particularly for those who lack resources to access diverse and nutritious food options.

Building a path forward

Targeted interventions aimed at supporting vulnerable populations in rural areas are crucial. This can involve investing in rural infrastructure and services, promoting access to quality education and training, and implementing social safety nets to provide essential support. Furthermore, promoting sustainable and equitable food systems is essential to ensure access to affordable and nutritious food for all.

The HCES 2022-2023 data, while providing valuable insights, unveils only a portion of the complex picture regarding economic disparity and food security in India. Deeper analysis and integration of data from diverse sources are crucial to comprehensively understand the challenges and develop effective solutions.

(Sachi Satapathy is Director, AF Development Care)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 04 March 2024, 08:53 IST)

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