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Why India trails in the hunger fight

The Green Revolution notwithstanding, the country's poor are still hungry
Last Updated 24 July 2023, 03:21 IST

More than five decades after India launched the Green Revolution, its war on hunger is far from won and the poor still do not get enough to eat.

The per capita net availability increased from 144 kg per year in 1951 to just 171 kg in 1971, which is but 18.8 per cent in two decades, a very deplorable, less than 1 per cent per annum, 0.93 per cent to be precise. India’s ranking on the Global Hunger Index has slipped to 107 in 2022 compared to 101 in 2021 out of 121 countries. This proves that India’s poor are hungry, the green revolution notwithstanding.

India’s increases in total food production have, unfortunately, not translated into proportionate decreases in malnutrition. While over the last two or three decades, higher rates of economic growth, declining poverty and availability of staples have led to reductions in the number of undernourished to around 15 per cent of the population, malnutrition remains stubbornly high; India ranked 103rd out of 119 countries on the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) 2018 Global Hunger Index (GHI) and is home to the largest number of malnourished people in the world, about one quarter of the global total.

Malnutrition in India today is concentrated among children under five. The 2018 Global Nutrition Report shows that in 2015, about 21 per cent of all children under five were wasted and 38 per cent stunted.

Overconsumption of calories leading to obesity among adults, adolescents and also children, and ends up in diabetes is India’s new malaise.

Clearly, one cause of persistent child malnutrition is the still high rural poverty — 25 per cent nationally and higher in poorer states as compared to 14 per cent in urban areas.

Today, agricultural households account for 50 per cent of extreme poverty in India, a major reason being the government’s failure to change the terms of trade between agricultural producers and consumers and invest adequately in the agricultural sector. A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) found that over the last 18 years, India has implicitly taxed agriculture at the rate of over 14 per cent, largely by keeping food prices low for urban consumers. From 1981 to 2014, the growth of public (central and states’) investment in agriculture and irrigation averaged 4.6 per cent and 4 per cent respectively, well below China’s investment rates at a comparable level of development. Unsurprisingly then, the incidence of malnutrition, especially stunting, is higher in both rural and lower-income households, primarily farm households. A second cause of persistent child malnutrition is the inefficiencies and distortions of the Green Revolution agriculture and food policies.

Programmes on child nutrition such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme launched in 1975 and the Midday Meals Scheme introduced in 1995 have not corrected the Public Distribution Scheme’s bias towards calories. Subsidies continued the reliance on rice and wheat, and did not include more varied and nutritious foods.

Parliamentarians across the world are coming together to form a multilateral body to push reforms in the agrifood system, which is an interesting development. The first summit on hunger and malnutrition held in Spain in 2018 was followed by a series of online interactions called ‘Virtual Parliamentary Dialogues’, specifically debating and influencing respective governments on ways to address challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

On June 16 this year, at the second ‘Global Parliamentary Summit against Hunger and Malnutrition’ in Chile, 200 parliamentarians and more than half a dozen heads of representatives from 64 countries signed a commitment titled ‘Global Parliamentary Pact’ on transforming the agrifood system to make food availability sustainable and accessible to all.

The pact lends crucial political muscle to the reform and transformation of the agrifood system. It brings a political commitment in support of the policies which concern the reform of the agrifood system, which includes drafting of legislation to ensure equity in food distribution as well as facilitating the budgetary support needed to achieve this. Giving this pact a character of global commitment, the parliamentarians even pledged to report the progress on various reforms. This includes them pursuing their respective governments to take up better monitoring and evaluation of relevant programmes.

As per the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, 45 national, regional and sub-regional parliamentary networks have committed to the new initiative, leading to the approval of 35 laws covering family farming, responsible investment in agriculture, gender equality and women’s empowerment, school feeding programmes, food labelling, food loss and waste, among other issues.

(The writer is former professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium)

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(Published 23 July 2023, 17:47 IST)

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