Hunger and malnutrition are chronic problems in the Indian subcontinent. The tragic famine in 1943-“The Great Bengal Famine” is still remembered today where it was estimated that 2 million people died of starvation. In present times, according to the Global Hunger Index 2018, India ranks 103rd out of 119 countries and suffers from a “serious” level of hunger. We share a quarter of the global hunger burden.
The famine in Bengal in 1943 lead to several attempts by the policymakers to address the issue of hunger and its consequences on the people. In 1943, a Foodgrains policy committee was set-up under British Raj. Independent India, with its focus on planned economic development, set up a Foodgrains Policy Commission in 1947. Its report submitted in 1948 concluded that to maintain central reserves, imports were necessary. Other recommendations included that India should continue with the rationing system that was introduced during World War II and should increase its indigenous food production to attain self-sufficiency. This commission was led by several commissions in the latter half of the 20th century where recommendations included self-sufficiency, procurement & distribution, price control mechanisms etc.
In 1942, a Food Department was established by British which was subsequently controlled by independent India from August 1947 and was re-designated as Ministry of Food. Since then there have been several changes in the control and constitution of the ministry governing food management in the nation. Today, it stands as the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, with two departments, namely the Department of Food & Public Distribution and Department of Consumer Affairs.
Independent India started as food grain importing nation in 1947. In the eighties, India was nearly self-sufficient. In the 1990s, structural reforms – Liberalization, Privatization, and Globalization (LPG)- were implemented in India and the nation opened its economy to free trade and privatization. Although India achieved better economic growth in the post-liberalization era and became the fastest growing major economy in the world just next to China; its food grain production also increased but, inequality deepened to a significant extent and the class divide continues to plague the country. Subsidies on food were thinned and Public Distribution System (PDS), existing from the inter-war period, from being a general entitlement scheme was redesigned in 1992 to include only selected blocks in India and was implemented as Revamped PDS (RPDS). Further, in 1997, targeting was revised to be based on the poverty level, and Targeted PDS (TPDS) was launched, as it continues today.
In 2007, a Centrally Sponsored Scheme, ‘National Food Security Mission‘ (NFSM), was launched with the objective of increasing the production of rice, wheat, and pulses. In the same year, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana was also launched with the objective of increasing public investment in Agriculture & allied sectors.
With its food grain production increased from 50 million tonnes in 1950-51 to 250 million tonnes in 2014-15, India has become a net food exporter.
India has the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme from 1975 which is one of the world’s largest early childhood care programme. It gradually increased its coverage from 33 blocks to pan India. Its main component is supplementary nutrition to children aged 6 months to 5 years and pregnant women & lactating mothers. However, the commitment to tackle malnutrition started becoming more evident only from the 1990s when India launched the National Nutrition Policy in 1993 and Midday Meal Scheme in 1995 (roots of this scheme can be traced back to 1925 followed by the introduction in few states in the 1980s, but was nationally introduced as a scheme in 1995). Since then there has been an intensification of focus on nutrition with the initiatives like National Nutrition Plan of Action (1995), National Nutrition Mission (2001), and nutrition-specific policies like Policy on Infant and Young Child Feeding (2004), Policy on Control of Anaemia (2004), Guidelines for Administration of Zinc Supplements (Diarrhoea Management; 2007), Operational Guidelines on Facility-based Management of Children with Severe Acute Malnutrition (2011) etc.
Most recently, there is an intensification of efforts to make a food plate well- balanced in terms of both quantity and quality. In 2013, India announced the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Though the name suggests so, this act doesn’t focus just on food security but aims to provide both food and nutrition security. It discusses both- food’s adequate quantity and quality. The Act also has a special focus on nutritional support to women and children. India is now moving in the direction of food fortification. In October 2016, a National Summit for Fortification of Food was held wherein a draft of Food Safety and Standards (Fortification of Foods) Regulations, 2016 was released. Since then several consultations on fortifying various foods have occurred. In 2018, a long-awaited development happened and India launched the National Nutrition Mission, more famously known as Poshan Abhiyaan.
India’s food policies have gradually and steadily transitioned from prioritizing food security towards both food & nutrition security. In fact, nutrition security has always been a part of food security in independent India, but it was not explicit and didn’t attain focus in the beginning till the 1990s. In the wake of dual burden of malnutrition (under-nutrition & over-nutrition), this relationship between food and nutrition security seems complex and demands more evidence and explanation.
More than half a century has gone by and numerous food & nutrition security measures have been taken, but India is yet to achieve its nutrition goals. There is a five-fold increase in food grain production from 1950-51 to 2014-15. This remarkable development, however, has not resulted in making India a well-nourished nation. This can be partly attributed to several fluctuations in Indian food system scenario and its initial primary focus on becoming self-sufficient due to its past experiences. However, major factor is the poor governanace and lack of implementation which makes all the schemes and policies inefficient and poorly effective.
With an increasing population which is estimated to be 1.6 billion in 2030 and challenges like climate change and diminishing bio-diversity, there is a high probability that maintaining adequate food quantity and quality could be a challenge in decades to come. Examining the existing health policies and filling the policy implementation gaps might help India achieve the goal 2 of “Zero Hunger” and goal 3 of “Good Health & well-being” of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030.