G Chandrashekhar

Time to redraw national priorities on health and agriculture

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on May 05, 2020

The pandemic will be seen as a blessing in disguise if we seriously introspect about our investments, policies and programmes to come up with a new vision for India

The Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown since March 25 has brought to centre-stage the age-old frailties of our country that successive governments have failed to address.

In recent decades, we have been obsessed with economic growth and the so-called ‘trickle-down theory’. Benefits of economic growth following policies of liberalisation, globalisation and modernisation have trickled down but a little. No wonder, India is still home to a large number of the world’s poor and hungry.

Sadly, critical priorities — health and education — continue to receive far less attention than they deserve. Fancy schemes are announced; but on the ground, there is little change that one can discern.

The United Nations estimates India’s poor at 364 million or 28 per cent of the population. The relationship between poverty, hunger and nutrition is well-recognised. The nation’s nutrition status leaves much to be desired. A large number of people — several hundred millions — suffer from severe under-nutrition. Protein and calorie deficiency is pervasive. Hidden hunger — micro-nutrient deficiency — is even worse.

There is also the relationship between agriculture, nutrition and health, that should inform our policy-making, but has not. We carry monumental amounts of rice and wheat as buffer stocks — with enormous carrying costs — that are often spoiled; never mind the ecological disaster that grain mono-cropping (rice-wheat-rice cycle) inflicts on States like Punjab and Haryana.

At the same time, land constraints, chronic water shortage and climate change continue to stymie farm growth. Often, farmers are unable to obtain even the minimum support price guaranteed by the government; and scores of them continue to commit suicide.

Quality healthcare

Our healthcare facilities are too far inadequate for a nation of 1.3 billion. Investment in public healthcare and administration has fallen short of the needs. While private healthcare is expensive and largely confined to urban regions, public healthcare is in shambles.

Low quality care, lack of accountability, access issues and suspected corruption characterise public healthcare, made worse by lack of public health knowledge and basic hygiene. The pandemic has exposed serious weaknesses in our healthcare system.

So, it is no surprise that despite claims of being the world’s fastest growing economy, India ranks rather low in Human Development Index (HDI) and in the Global Hunger Index (GHI). HDI takes into account life expectancy, education and per capita income. These may be rising in India but not fast enough to improve the country’s rank smartly.

India is ranked 102 out of 117 countries tracked for hunger. It’s a matter of national shame. This is despite being the world’s largest milk producer and second-largest producer of rice, wheat and sugar. We are the world’s largest importer of vegetable oil, and until recently, pulses. Despite all these, if India holds a lowly rank, it reflects inefficient policies and poor implementation that do nothing much to encourage food access and consumption.

Social development

There are lessons from the lockdown. The pandemic will be seen as a blessing in disguise if we seriously introspect about our priorities and investments, policies and programmes to come up with a new vision for the nation. We have sacrificed social development on the altar of economic growth. It is time social development received primary attention.

Food, primary health and primary education for all ought to become our national obsession. The pathetic plight of millions of migrant labourers held up in various cities and towns in this time of lockdown highlights the inadequacies of our system. The hardship arising out of reverse migration could have been minimised with more easy access to food and nutrition.

The State governments have an active role to play in ensuring food, health and education for all. It is critical the Centre and the States work in unison, and that there is a national consensus on our priorities.

The economic consequences of the lockdown are going to humongous. Demand destruction, closed factories, lost jobs and incomes, rising debt and lack of investment are going to characterise the economic landscape. It may take several months for business activities to move towards normalisation, if at all.

Post lifting of the lockdown, there is the risk of social unrest if the challenges of jobs, food, health and education are not addressed with urgency.

The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal

Published on May 05, 2020

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