Still too many going hungry

B Yerram Raju | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 16, 2015


Despite the high growth years, malnourishment stalks the countryside. This calls for a small-farmer led focus

At a time when India’s GDP growth is hopefully pitched at 7.5 per cent this fiscal, touted to be higher than China’s, three global reports of significance also grabbed the headlines: The Global Findex Data Base 2014, The Global Food Policy Report of the UN and the State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014.

Ahead of all these, the IMF and the World Economic Forum reported that 25 per cent of India’s population still remains poor.

The Global Findex Data measured the financial inclusion around the world. The other two reports dealt with the food insecurity and the measures to tackle them.

It must be remembered that the data is mostly up to March 2014. The findings are of great import to this government for designing policies tackling financial inclusion, hunger and malnutrition.

The government would like to measure the poor by the JAM method — Jan Dhan account, Aadhaar, and the mobile. It has been acknowledged universally that there were no deaths due to hunger. But the farmers who produced food committed suicide were burdened by excessive debt.

The undernourished poor, like the Jan Dhan accounts, showed an impressive decline in the reports and these are counted once every three years.

A range of indicators can be used to measure a nation’s food security. These include average dietary energy and protein supply, access in terms of road and rail line density, domestic food price index, prevalence of under-nourishment, stability measured in terms of cereal import dependence ratio, political stability as well as absence of violence and terrorism, undernourished children below five years, anaemia among pregnant women, and vitamin A and iodine deficiency in the population.

Measuring insecurity

Malnutrition is redefined to include obesity and overweight. In India, child stunting (under five years) is 47.5 per cent while undernourishment is 15.2 per cent; whereas overweight population is 11 per cent. The country witnessed an average GDP growth of 8.7 per cent in 2003-08, 6.7 per cent in 2008-09, followed by 8.6 per cent and 9.3 per cent in the next two years.

When the growth of GDP was high and food inflation was also high, there was a decline in the percentage of under-nourished population.

This enigma can be explained only by the social security measures implemented during those years. But the absolute numbers of the undernourished: a whopping 190.7 million cannot be wished away.

Malnutrition and under-nourishment are proving to be endemic owing to poor sanitation, open defecation, and lack of safe drinking water. These increase the hold of vulnerable diseases, which along with food inflation would inevitably lead to reduction of expenditure on food.

In an agrarian economy like ours where 82 per cent of the farmsteads are in the hands of small and marginal farmers, a number of ameliorative measures have been recommended.

These include: flexible arrangements for land transfer, access to risk mitigation tools and market information, pro-small holder, nutrition-sensitive value chains, vertical and horizontal integration of safety, quality and quantity standards, as well as social safety nets.

Moving up, moving out

The reports highlight the need for small family farms to take the challenge to move up in the production and value addition ladder or to ‘move out’ of farming.

Institutional mechanisms of extension, credit in terms of access and availability beyond Jan Dhan, and a determination on the part of the government to insure for failures — both natural and social — to the extent required deserve serious and immediate attention.

The zero hunger challenge hinges on 100 per cent access to adequate food round the year, zero wastage in food, 100 per cent increase in small farm productivity, sustainable food systems and zero stunted children (below two years).

The report on food insecurity further highlights that the amount of food lost or wasted every year amounts to half of the world’s annual cereal crops (2.3 billion tonnes in 2009-10).

Food is reported to be wasted in the entire supply chain; in the developed world retail chains it is as high as 45-48 per cent, higher than what India reports for its fruits and vegetables at 40 per cent annually.

What lessons?

The three reports have at least four lessons for us:

1. Go beyond the numbers in financial inclusion — ensure that every leaseholder, and small and marginal farmer gets access to hassle-free credit at low rates of interest.

2. Source raw materials for all agro-based enterprises from local farmers to minimise transportation.

3. Invest in better storage and better proportioning of food in restaurants and local retail chains.

4. Make subsidies for the farm sector a boon and not a bane inasmuch as farm subsidies are $30 million in the US and €40 million in Europe.

(The writer is an economist, risk management specialist and on the board of governors of the Farm & Rural Science Foundation, Hyderabad)

Published on June 16, 2015

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