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Food security in India leaves much to be desired

Feb 24, 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).

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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 norms.

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 improvement.

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.

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