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Food security in India leaves much to be desired

Manasi Singh, OneWorld South Asia
24 February 2009

India's malnutrition figures are not coming down despite a number
of government programmes, says a new report released by World
Food Programme. The research points out the need for a revamped
public distribution system and greater public investment to address
the wants of rural population.
New Delhi, India: High economic growth rates have failed to improve food
security in India leaving the country facing a crisis in its rural economy,
warns the latest report released by the World Food Programme and the M S
Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).

A hunger-free India/ Photo credit: Rein Skullerud/ WFP
Launched in the Indian capital on February 20, 2009, State of Food
Insecurity in Rural India tries to give a broad indicative picture of the level of
food insecurity in different states of the country and the operation of the
nutrition safety net programmes.
The report says that the number of undernourished people is rising,
reversing gains made in the 1990s. Slowing growth in food production, rising
unemployment and declining purchasing power of the poor in India are
combining to weaken the rural economy.
Strengthening rural interventions
“The report suggests priority areas of action to help achieve the national and
Millennium Development Goal of reducing hunger and malnutrition,” said
Mihoko Tamamura, WFP Representative and Country Director for India.
It also examines the effectiveness of some of the important food-based
interventions like the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Integrated Child
Development Services (ICDS), and the Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS), and
recommends measures for improved performance.
“There is a need to create a universal PDS with uniform prices affordable to
the poor and the allocation should be based on the number of consumption
units in the household,” remarked Professor Venkatesh Athreya who
coordinated this research.
He pointed out that many of the social safety net and agriculture production
programmes can ensure the availability and access to food.
Food security has three components: availability of food in the market,
access to food through adequate purchasing power, and absorption of food
in the body.
“However, even if the required quantities of macro and micro nutrients are
met, a serious handicap in achieving nutrition security arises from poor
sanitation and environmental hygiene and lack of clean drinking water,”
added Athreya.
The study also highlights larger challenges of climate change and global food
price rise.
Hunger hotspots
At the global level, the South Asian region is home to more chronically food
insecure people than any other region in the world and India ranks 94th in
the Global Hunger Index of 119 countries.
While famines and starvation deaths remain the popular representation of
the contemporary problem of hunger, one of the most significant yet
understated and perhaps less visible area of concern today is that of chronic
or persistent food and nutrition insecurity.
This is a situation where people regularly subsist on a very minimal diet that
has poor nutrient and calorific content as compared to medically prescribed
This report uses seven indicators, which directly or indirectly affect the food
security and nutritional status of a person. These are based on amount of
calories consumed, access to safe drinking water and toilets, women and
children who are anaemic.
On the composite index of food insecurity of rural India, states like
Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are found in the 'very high' level of food
insecurity, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat.
The better performers include Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Punjab and Jammu
and Kashmir. Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka,
Orissa and Maharashtra perform poorly.
Even economically developed states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra
Pradesh and Karnataka find themselves in the category of high food
insecurity - a reflection perhaps of the manifestation of the agrarian crisis in
the states and its consequent negative impact on the health and well-being
of the rural population.
“Nutrition security involving physical, economic and social access to
balanced diet, clean drinking water, sanitation and primary health care for
every child, woman and man is fundamental to giving all our citizens an
opportunity for a healthy and productive life,” said Professor MS
Swaminathan, Chairman, MSSRF.
Unless this aspect of food security is attended to with the involvement of
local bodies, the food security situation in India will not show the desired
To address availability, access and sustainability concerns, the report calls
for reorienting India’s economic policies to provide adequate support for
agriculture and its vast rural population. Also, appropriate attention should
be paid to conservation of common property and biodiversity resources and
rehabilitation of wastelands.
“We must explore a horticulture remedy to tide over this nutritional malady,”
noted Prof. Swaminathan.