Rural India is eating less than what it used to 40 years ago

Rural India is eating less than what it used to 40 years ago

Monday September 25, 2017,

6 min Read

The malnutrition figures, howsoever startling, get camouflaged under the glare and glitter of the economic growth figures. The new India needs new economic thinking and removing poverty, hunger and malnutrition is not possible without focussing on agriculture.

Representational image, Source: (L) - Shutterstock; (R) - Devinder Sharma

The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released its Global Hunger Index ranking countries on the basis of their population that faces hunger and under nutrition. India ranks 97 among the 118 developing nations, faring worse than all its neighbours except for Pakistan. This report was released almost a year back, in October 2016.

As usual, the report was written about in newspaper editorials, and then forgotten. Not many knew that the Global Hunger Index was first prepared in 2006, wherein India ranked 96 among 119 countries. In these 11 years, nothing had changed as far as hunger and malnutrition was concerned. In fact, India’s track record in addressing hunger had only worsened.

But what came as a bigger shock is a report of a survey conducted by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau. The survey brings out a stark reality that the country doesn’t want to know. Rural India is eating less than what it used to 40 years ago. According to a report published in the web news portal Scroll – “On average, compared to 1975-79, a rural Indian now consumes 550 fewer calories and 13 gm protein, 5 mg iron, 250 mg calcium, and about 500 mg less vitamin A.

Children below the age of three are consuming, on average, 80 ml of milk per day instead of the 300 ml they require. This data explains, in part, why in the same survey, 35 percent of rural men and women were found to be undernourished, and 42 percent of children were underweight.” In fact, the malnutrition levels in South Asia are twice as high as in Sub-Saharan Africa. Considering that rural India comprises 70 percent of the country’s population, where roughly 85 crore people live, I thought this was an appropriate subject for a midnight Parliament session. After all, a democracy cannot brush growing hunger and malnutrition under the carpet.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has declared removing hunger and malnutrition among the six goals to be achieved in the next five years, by 2022. This is a very heartening development. But let me make it clear — it is not that the previous Prime Ministers had remained oblivious to the growing malnutrition monster. In recent years, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had launched Garibi Hatao, Atal Bihar Vajpayee had promised to turn the infamous hunger belt of Kalahandi into a food bowl, Manmohan Singh had gone to the extent of calling malnourishment “a national shame". But hunger and malnutrition has remained robustly sustainable.

I recall an emotional Narendra Modi dedicating his government to the poor when he addressed for the first time the BJP Parliamentary party meeting at the Central Hall. Several of the government’s programmes are aimed at reaching out to the poor, including opening the Jan Dhan bank accounts for 58 percent of the population, who had remained outside the ambit of the banking system. With programmes like Skill India still to show results, what is worrying is the growing tendency to shift bulk of the rural population to urban centres. The National Skill Development Policy paper has set a target of reducing the population engaged in agriculture from the existing 52 percent to 38 percent in the next five years.

Meanwhile, the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, which was created in 1972, was disbanded in 2015. Whatever be the reason, how will the country ever know whether the nutritional targets have been achieved unless there is a credible organisation to monitor it? In any case, while the economic growth is measured every six months, nutritional surveys are conducted once in 10 years. Even that is not palatable. It throws a dampener in the story of economic growth. The malnutrition figures, howsoever startling, get camouflaged under the glare and glitter of the economic growth figures.

Removing poverty, hunger and malnutrition is not possible without focussing on agriculture. A recent US study has established that investments in agriculture are five times more effective in removing poverty than investments in building urban infrastructure. In my understanding, this is a very significant finding which cannot be ignored simply because the Indian economists, policy makers and the bureaucracy are ideologically committed to market reforms, and are systematically reducing the investments in agriculture and the social sector.

I have always been of the opinion that that those who are responsible for the crisis cannot be expected to provide solutions. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), an umbrella organisation that overlooks 71 agricultural universities and over 200 research institutes/bureaus, is a classic example. Add to it the economic prescriptions being doled out from time to time by the Niti Ayog, and it becomes loud and clear that the thrust is on the same kind of failed policies that brought in the agrarian crisis in the first place.

Even Albert Einstein had once said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Whether it is the Economic Survey, the Niti Ayog’s Vision and Strategy document for the next three years, or the report of the expert committee on Doubling of Farmers’ Income, the underlying thrust is on the same strategies that actually led to the crisis. The arguments invariably revolve around the same principles — increasing crop productivity, expanding irrigation, crop insurance, and strengthening the electronic national agricultural market platform.

If this was true, I don’t see any reason why Punjab, the food bowl, shouldn’t have turned into a suicide hotspot. There is hardly a day when two or three farmers on an average do not commit suicide. Punjab has 98 percent area under assured irrigation and has the highest productivity of cereal crops, including wheat, rice and maize in the world. It also is on the top when it comes to the number of tractors, machines, fertiliser and pesticides used. And yet, farmers are dying. Although Punjab gives a picture of prosperity, some colleges in Punjab have started mid-day meal programmes to address hunger and malnutrition among the youth. Expecting all other states to follow Punjab’s success in agriculture, therefore, is not the way out.

Agriculture is the first line of defence against poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Ignoring farmer’s welfare and focussing only on crop productivity has been the bane of agriculture. It is high time to learn from past blunders, and make a fresh approach if the Prime Minister’s dream is to be realised. It is certainly possible, but not with the same flawed thinking that actually led to the crisis.

This article, authored by Devinder Sharma, was first published on Ground Reality.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect that of YourStory.)