The Indian economy is typified by dualism. We can take credit for being the fastest growing economy. Our potential is vindicated by the large flows of foreign investment over the years. India will remain probably the top three fastest growing nations for at least another decade.
But we also have witnessed growing inequality where the disparity between the haves and have nots has exacerbated over time. The trickle-down theory has not quite worked.
There is impatience when it comes to achieving something new — roads, technology, high speed trains and the like. In this haste we tend to ignore the concept of quality of life. This is what is reflected in the Global Hunger Report.
The indignation expressed over the GHR (an index where India has been ranked 107 out of 121 with a ‘serious’ malnutrition score) is probably justified. The report is based on a survey of 3,000 people which may not be representative of the true picture. But then even the Ease of Doing Business ranking (which has been withdrawn due to methodological issues), that gave us a big promotion to 63 in 2019, had a sample of less than 100. So clearly all these methodologies have limitations.
Need for introspection
But we need to do some introspection to address the issue, as a country that has made remarkable strides in growth numbers, the trickle down effects are weak. The silver lining is that with effective policies we can tackle the problem.
It has been counter-argued that the government has been spending a lot on welfare which is true. There is the PM Kisan scheme where cash is transferred and the PMGKAY scheme which has provided support to over 800 million people in the last two years and continues to do so. The challenge is to make this money work better.
The GHR looks at the level of malnutrition (across population) and associated height and weight of children besides infant mortality. A theorist would question the criteria as these variables are related to each other and hence involves multiple counting. Yet the question to be asked is whether we can do better.
The onus is really on all three levels of government — Centre, States and local (municipals or panchayats) to ensure that delivery of a food package is available to all children. This is important because the country does have the advantage of a favourable demographic composition. A prerequisite for earning any dividend from this transition is a healthy young population. We do have some effective templates which are already being implemented in some States.
First, States such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh have been running a mid-day meal scheme for children which have made an impact. The idea is to spread this scheme to all States. In fact, it may make sense for the Finance Commission to specify a proportion of the Budget to be allocated for mid-day meal schemes.
Alternatively if it is Centrally sponsored, it can be earmarked for this purpose. The meals must adhere to strict quality norms linked with calorie intake, where the frequency can be increased to twice a day.
Second, the Centre can consider revamping the PM-Kisan Scheme where annual outlays are around ₹60,000-68,000 crore. Around half of this allocation should be set aside for promotion of nutrition for children through a meal scheme that covers all government-run schools. The panchayats can be assigned the task of providing meals in the homes of the children who do not go to school.
Third, it is mandatory for corporates to keep aside 2 per cent of profits for CSR. They usually channelise funds to schools where water coolers or computers are provided. This has added value for sure.
As part of this exercise of improving nutrition levels of children, an alternative could be to map all corporates involved in schools to deploy this 2 per cent of profits to specific schools in remote areas and tie up with kitchens which provide the meals.
The government would also be helping to set up kitchens formally across the country that would cater to these requirements. Despite the methodological short-commings, there may, after all, be some useful takeaways from the GHR.
The writer is Chief Economist, Bank of Baroda. Views expressed are personal