A Glimpse of the Latest Position of Horrific Hunger, Starvation & Malnutrition in India

“India has ranked 94 among 107 nations in the Global Hunger Index 2020 and is in the ‘serious’ hunger category. Experts have blamed poor implementation processes, lack of effective monitoring, a siloed approach in tackling malnutrition and poor performance by large states. Latest paper, titled Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India, arrives at the conclusion that ‘malnutrition is endemic in India,’ based on information on rural food price and wages gleaned from the 2011 National Sample Survey. The writers use this data to arrive at “the least cost means of satisfying India-specific dietary recommendations…and assess the affordability of this diet relative to male and female wages for unskilled labourers.” In spite of the fact that, “in 2015-16 some 38% of preschool children were stunted and 21% were wasted, while more than half of Indian mothers and children were anaemic,” the paper finds that “surprisingly few” discuss the role of diets, particularly the affordability of nutritious diets in India.

Among stiff problems that lend themselves to the appalling diet scenario in rural India are low wages and the significant structural problems facing India’s agricultural sector, the paper posits.  In spite of costs of diet increasing in the period between 2001 and 2011, the authors of the paper write that rural wages have also increased in that time. “However, in absolute terms nutritious diets in 2011 were still expensive relative to unskilled wages, constituting approximately 50-60% of male and about 70-80% of female daily wages” of MGNREGA workers.

The paper finds that considering the number of dependents in average rural household and other non-food expenses, “45-64% of the rural poor cannot afford a nutritious diet that meets India’s national food-based dietary guidelines.” (Quoted from The Wire dated 18-10-20 and The Hindu dated 18-10-20)

“In the past, the beneficial impact of food subsidy has been frequently overestimated. There is no doubt that providing wheat at Rs 2 per kg instead of the market rate of around Rs 30 per kg involves a very substantial subsidy, but what is often missed in the discussion is that the amount of subsidised wheat (or rice) which is provided lasts only for about 12 days in a month and for the remaining 18 days, wheat has to be purchased at the market rate. If it is poor quality, contaminated wheat, as often happens in ration shops, then after cleaning subsidised wheat my last for only 9-10 days in a month and for remaining days (over two-third) wheat (or rice) has to be purchased at the market rate. Hence we have to carefully consider the actual impact of schemes involving subsidised and free food on hunger and malnutrition. Here various aspects of this issue are examined.

The food budget is only part of the total budget of all essential needs. The total budget for all essential needs maybe twice the food budget in a village or thrice the budget in a slum. It can be more or less, depending on several circumstances and how we define essential needs. However, the important point to note here is that a significant percentage of people in our villages and slums are not assured of a daily wage or income which can be sufficient for just the food budget.

A farmworker too would earn less than this in many states. A construction worker may get a little less or a little more, but employment will be available for only 15 days or less in a month on average. For this reason, it is not the wage rate but the average income per day which matters and this is generally less than the household food budget. When both husband and wife together then, of course, household income increases but often wages of female workers are lower without any rational basis.

Keeping in view the low and recently decreased incomes of working-class people and also the large numbers of people affected by adverse weather conditions, we should not lower our guard against hunger and malnutrition. Wider efforts to reduce these issues should still continue to get high priority”. (Quoted from an article by Bharat Dogra in The Wire dated 10-07-20)

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