Despite rapid economic growth in the last two decades, India is likely to slip behind the first Millennium Development Goal of cutting the proportion of hungry people by half. Per capita availability as well as consumption of foodgrains in India has declined since 1996; the percentage of underweight children has remained stagnant between 1998 and 2006; and the calorie consumption of the bottom half of the population has been consistently declining since 1987. In short, all indicators point to the hard fact that endemic hunger continues to afflict a large proportion of Indian population.
A recent UNDP survey (2008) of 16 districts in the seven poorest states of India showed that for 7.5 per cent of respondents access to food is highly inadequate, and for another 29 per cent it is somewhat inadequate. A West Bengal government survey too reported that 15 per cent families were facing difficulties in arranging two square meals a day year round. These figures are gloomier than the NSSO survey claiming a drastic decline in self-reported hunger from 16.1 to 1.9 per cent in the last 20 years.
However, NSSO’s calorie data shows that at any given point in time the calorie intake of the poorest quartile continues to be 30 to 50 per cent less than the calorie intake of the top quartile of the population, despite the poor needing more calories because of harder manual work. Whereas the top 30 per cent in rural India consumed 2,564 kcalories per day in 2004-05, the bottom 30 per cent consumed only 1,607 kcalories per day, which must be interpreted as a sign of distress and hunger.
Similar downward trend is observed for cereal consumption too. As the relative price of food items has remained stable over the past 20 years, declining consumption can be attributed to the lack of purchasing power and contraction of effective demand by the poor, who are forced to spend a greater part of their incomes on non-food items like transport, fuel and light, health, and education, which have become as essential as food.
Calorie intake refers to the most proximate aspect of hunger, but it neglects other effects of hunger, such as being under-weight and mortality. These are captured by the Global Hunger Index, which was designed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) based on three dimensions of hunger: lack of economic access to food, shortfalls in the nutritional status of children, and child mortality, which is to a large extent attributable to malnutrition. IFPRI estimated the hunger index for India as 23.7 per cent in 2008, which placed India in the category of nations where hunger was ‘alarming’, with Madhya Pradesh being categorised as ‘extremely alarming’. Worse, its score was poorer than many Sub- Saharan African counties, with a lower GDP than India’s.
This is primarily because of the fact that anthropometric indicators of the nutritional status for children in India are among the worst in the world. According to the National Family Health Survey, the proportion of underweight children remained virtually unchanged between 1998-99 and 2005-06 (from 47 to 46 per cent for the age group of 0-3 years). These are appalling figures, which place India among the most “undernourished” countries.
Higher child malnutrition rate in India (for that matter in the entire South Asia) is caused by many factors. First, Indian women’s nutrition, feeding and caring practices for young children are inadequate. This is related to their status in society, early marriage, low weight at pregnancy and their lower level of education. Second, many unscientific traditional practices still continue, such as delaying breastfeeding after birth, no exclusive breastfeeding for the first five months, irregular and insufficient complementary feeding after between 6 months to two years of age, and lack of disposal of child’s excreta because of the practice of open defecation in or close to the house itself. And lastly, poor supply of government services, such as immunisation, access to medical care, and lack of priority to assigned primary health care in government programmes also contributes to morbidity. These factors combined with poor food availability in the family, unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation lead to high child undernutrition and mortality. About 2.1 million deaths occur annually in under-5 year-old children in India.
Food production, procurement and availability at the macro-level
At the macro level, foodgrain availability in India is calculated at 87.5 per cent of gross production plus net imports minus changes in government stocks. Assuming no net change in private stocks, this can be taken as a good proxy for overall foodgrain consumption.
During the last 50 years before Independence, foodgrain availability declined from 545 grams to 407 grams per head per day. Considering five-year averages, India saw a rise in the foodgrain availability per head from 416 grams during 1950-55 to 485 grams by 1989-91. However, since then there has been the slide to a low of 445 gram per head per day by 2006, a level not seen since the drought years of 1970s.
The fall in availability is because of both a drop in production and increasing exports. From 2001 to 2005, the government exported a record 28 million tonnes at subsidised rates. Independent India has never before seen such huge exports, and it is highly unethical that the government preferred to feed foreigners and their cattle by exporting foodgrains, applying a heavy subsidy to beat the low world price, rather than undertake widespread internal distribution of foodgrains.
Despite the fact that the growth of foodgrain production in the period 1989- 2004 was lower than the increase in population, the procurement of cereals on government account went up, suggesting a decline in poor people’s consumption and their purchasing power. This may have happened because of the structural imbalances like a high Minimum Support Price (MSP), rising capital intensity, lack of land reforms, failure of poverty alleviation programmes, and no new technological breakthrough in agriculture. It could also be due to production problems in less endowed regions like erratic rainfall, soil erosion and water run-off, lack of access to credit and markets, and poor communications which led to a dangerous situation of huge surplus in FCI godowns during 2000-03 coupled with widespread hunger.
The falling availability and increase in procurement reflects a contraction of effective demand, as the poor are forced to spend a greater part of their incomes on transport, health and education. In other words, non-food items have become more “essential” than food in a particular sense. This argument is supported by empirical evidence from various sample surveys, as between 1972-73 and 2004-05 the proportion of food in total consumer expenditure has fallen from 73 per cent to 55 per cent in rural areas and from 64 per cent to 42 per cent in urban areas.
Because of a lack of growth in agriculture after the mid-1990s there has been an employment decline, income decline and hence a fall in aggregate demand by the rural poor. Normally when there is a fall in per capita output and government stocks are depleted, net imports take place in order to maintain availability per head at an unchanged level; but precisely the opposite happened in India during 1999-2004. Despite falling per capita output, there were both rising net exports as well as huge addition to stocks year after year.
This was a highly abnormal situation never seen before in independent India: it reflects the unprecedented magnitude of continuous demand-deflation of foodgrains, especially in the rural sector since 1996.
First, revamp small holder agriculture. Because of stagnating growth in agriculture after the mid-1990s there has been employment decline, income decline and hence a fall in aggregate demand by the rural poor. The most important intervention that is needed is greater investment in irrigation, power, and roads in poorer regions. Second, launch watershed development programmes in uplands. Third, start a drive to plant fruit trees on degraded forests and homestead lands. This will not only make the poor people’s diet more nutritious, but will also diversify their livelihoods and reduce seasonal vulnerability.
Fourth, create more job opportunities by undertaking public works in districts with low agricultural productivity. In addition to increased outlays, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme should have a food component, now that government has a comfortable stock. Fifth, provide separate ration cards as well as NREGS job cards to all ‘single’women, regardless of whether they live alone or with dependents. Likewise for aged, infirm and disabled people who may or may not live with ‘able-bodied’ caregivers.
Sixth, improve the skills of the poor for market oriented jobs, so that they are absorbed in the sunrise industries such as hospitality, security, health, and construction. Seventh, improve the distribution of subsidised foodgrains to the poor through the Public Distribution System. Eighth, restructure Integrated Child Development Services. Today, ICDS is reaching only 12.5 per cent children in the age group 6 months to 6 years. The focus of ICDS should be health and nutrition education.
Last, India requires a significant increase of targeted investments in nutrition programmes, clinics, disease control, irrigation, rural electrification, rural roads, and other basic investments. Higher public investments need to be accompanied by systemic reforms. Outlays should not be considered as an end in itself. Delivery of food-based schemes requires increasing financial resources, but more importantly the quality of public expenditures in these areas. This in turn requires improving the governance, productivity and accountability of government machinery.