By Abhiruchi Ranjan
According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Indian sub-continent is plagued by a serious problem of hunger. The country which boasts of being the world’s second-largest food producer is also home to the second largest population of undernourished people in the world.
What is the GHI?
The GHI is a quantitative tool used by the IFPRI to measure the severity of hunger across 119 nations and takes into account four major factors- proportion of the undernourished population, the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (children who have low weight for their height), prevalence of stunting in children under five years and the under-five mortality rate.
To put it in simpler terms, insufficient caloric intake, acute undernutrition resulting in low weight and height and the deaths of children under the age of five is used to undercover the level of hunger in nations.
As per the results of the 2017 GHI, India has a score of 31.4 out of 100, ringing alarm bells globally about the acute nature of its problem of hunger. Additionally, despite the launch of a plethora of schemes and acts, the Indian subcontinent continues to grapple with the idea of being a zero hunger nation.
What are the roadblocks to zero hunger?
The Indian government’s lopsided approach to food policy making comes to light when they choose to generalise everyone’s staple diet to rice and wheat. Irrespective of regional differences, the government has tailor-made policies right from production to trade for these ‘fan favourite’ grains. Yes, rice and wheat are an integral part of food consumption but the problem that needs to be brought to everyone’s notice is that how diversity has been put on the backburner. As an Indian society we carry this repute of being culturally rich but what tends to be overlooked is that the food intake is equally diverse and everyone’s staple diet would vary based on their local produce.
Undermining the importance of dietary diversification has branched out into a bigger problem of hidden hunger. The availability of cheap food in large quantities might satisfy basic hunger and meet the minimum required calorie count of an individual but the lack of essential nutrients like iron, iodine and vitamin A has altered the micronutrient content of people’s everyday meals. With micronutrient malnourishment on the rise, the quality of public health is walking a fine line between bad and worse. The National Family and Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3) report validate this by stating that 78.9% children, 56.2% married women, 57.9% pregnant women and 24.3% married men are anaemic. Moreover, the survey manifests that anaemia strongly prevails amongst the population that resides in the rural areas and have lower household incomes.
Another reason India has been unable to become a zero hunger nation is the lack of access to food supplies in remote areas. Communities located in such areas, in particular, tribal communities, face the plight of poor logistics and substandard monitoring of the government that result in poor connectivity to main agricultural markets. The depletion of forests only adds fuel to the fire as it further replenishes access to food for the marginalised and backward classes. As the government continues to focus on commercialisation to hasten the process of economic growth, several communities have had to sacrifice their way of life which have significantly distorted their consumption patterns.
Another important factor to point out here is the dismal state of healthcare and sanitation facilities in the country. The government needs to focus on improving the quality of health care and ensuring hygienic sanitation facilities. The amalgamated benefits of health care, hygiene and nutrition are the only way to resolve the problem of starvation related deaths.
What are the possible solutions?
Conserving nature and preventing farmers from remaining landless are the most important steps to help move our country towards becoming a self sufficient agrarian economy. Despite having the second largest highest agricultural output in the world, India is miles away from being a self sufficient economy. However, it is only when diseases and deaths occur due to the food shortage that policymakers succumb to the public outcry and media frenzy about the issue. The need of the hour is to improve the public distribution systems.
Another very important step is to incorporate dietary diversification in policymaking, in both the quality and the range of food. Individual food choices need to be modified to allow the availability of diverse crops and micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and animal products, to fight hidden hunger. Public health interventions would have to be pluralistic in nature as the problems of mediocre healthcare and sanitation facilities curtail public health from reaching its potential. Although supplementation and food fortification are becoming increasingly popular methods of meeting micronutrient requirements, supplies of supplements reaching its target populace and food products with an enhanced nutritional value being available at reasonable costs are hurdles that are yet to be crossed.
The government launched the National Nutrition Mission (NNM) on March 8 to help resolve the problem of hunger. The initiative focuses on converging various programmes like the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhyan’ and ‘Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojna’ to achieve concrete results in reducing rates of diarrhoea and gut infections amongst children, resolving acute malnutrition and providing support to pregnant women and lactating mothers. A budget of Rs 90 billion has been set aside by the Centre to help reduce stunting, under-nutrition, anaemia (among young children, women and adolescent girls) and low birth weight. Aanganwadis, a rural mother and child care centre, are now responsible for tracking the nutritional status of a child for the first thousand days after its birth with the aid of a real time system, improving both monitoring and delivery of the policy.
Recently when the minimum support price (MSP) of milk was raised from Rs 20 to Rs 25, Indian dairy farmers in Maharashtra breathed a sigh of relief but customers worried about the spiralling food inflation in the country. According to a survey conducted by the RBI, 83.8% of households expect inflation to grow in the next three months. With general price levels on the rise, we can only expect a larger amount of people sitting in front of empty plates.
Drought and excessive flooding leave farmers in despair and determine the fate of their produce and majority of their income. These extremities leave farmers toiling and in both cases suppress the supply of food for everyone. This emphasises the need for alternatives like dairy products and the rearing of small livestock.
The path to achieving zero hunger is riddled with challenges for India. The National Food Security Act of 2013, launched with a lot of grandeur is yet to live up to the expectations of the marginalised. Our very own home bred hunger games spell disaster for the economy and the country and the focus on improving the access and outreach of public policy programs is the only solution.
Abhiruchi Ranjan is a writing analyst at Qrius.