Food security refers to availability, affordability and accessibility of food. However, the latest NFHS shows a different story. One can infer disproportionality in affordability and accessibility of food. The famine of Bengal in 1943 was the most devastating famine that occurred in India killing thirty lakh people in the province of Bengal. Nothing like the Bengal Famine has happened in India again. But even today, there are famine-like conditions in places such as Kalahandi and Kashipur (Orissa), and reports of starvation deaths in Baran district of Rajasthan, Palamau district of Jharkhand and other remote areas of India, despite tremendous increase in agricultural production in the country.
Hunger is not just the result of poverty, it leads to poverty as well. Hunger and poverty are interlinked concepts. On one hand, the inaccessibility and unaffordability of food due to poverty leads to hunger, and on the other hand, being hungry (undernourished) makes the person unhealthy enough to prevent them from taking up jobs or being unsuccessful at their job — thus falling into the trap of poverty. While the poor face food insecurity on a perennial basis, people above the poverty line face it only during natural calamity. Social composition along with the inability to buy food also plays a key role in food insecurity.
The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) showed nutritional levels among children in India worsened over the last five years. Of the 22 states and Union Territories (UTs), 18 recorded a rise in the percentage of children (under five years) who are stunted, wasted and underweight compared with 2015-16, reversing the gains achieved before. This data is alarming as the survey was done before the pandemic. Post the pandemic, one can imagine the further deterioration in food security conditions.
The WHO described stunting is a marker of inequalities in human development. India drops two ranks in Human Development Index 2020, standing at 131 out of 189 countries. According to a World Bank 2019 report, India has the second highest number of stunted children in South Asia (at 38%), after Afghanistan (41%). Wasting is highest in India at 21%, followed by Sri Lanka at 15% and Bangladesh at 14%, the report said.
India already has a poor score on the global hunger index – ranking just above 13 countries out of a total of 107, including North Korea, Haiti and Afghanistan among others. The Wire reported, “According to a ‘Hunger Watch’ survey, the hunger situation remains grave among the marginalized and vulnerable communities in as many as 11 states even five months after the lockdown has ended, with a large number of families going to bed without food.” Let alone nutritional food, marginalised people in India can’t even afford food.
The attainment of food security requires eliminating current hunger and reducing the risks of future hunger. The government has initiated programmes and policies to ensure food security. It maintains buffer stocks after buying grains from farmers at minimum support price and ensures its distribution through schemes like Public Distribution System, midday meal scheme, Integrated Child Development Services, Poshan Abhiyaan.
However the distribution fell flat during the pandemic. The ASHA, also called anganwadi workers, have been protesting in different parts of the country over issues of underpayments and PPE kits. These women were frontline workers in fighting the pandemic. They are critical components for the maternal and child health care system in the country, playing an important role in the immunisation of children and thus ensuring a healthy future of our country. The ICDS programme needs to be prioritised and worked upon.
Odisha became the first state to introduce nutrition budgeting, an initiative to translate the commitment to increase nutrition level in a more targeted manner. There has been a jump from Rs 3,999 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 5,210 crore in 2020-21 budget for nutrition-specific schemes. In the same period, the budget for nutrition-sensitive schemes increased by almost 70% from Rs 13,880 crore to Rs 23,753 crore.
Odisha has been eulogised for its determination of implementing a range of progressive interventions in the domain of nutrition. Eggs and the decentralised procurement in Supplementary Nutrition Programme (SNP) have been added along with efficient implementation of Mamata scheme (conditional cash transfer for pregnant and lactating women), institutionalising the community-monitoring platforms among others (Shrivastava and Saigal, 2020). The budget for Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) saw an increase of almost 23%.
Our children are severely malnourished, despite an increase in harvest over years and targeted PDS. There are gaps and leakages that need to be worked upon. There is an utmost requirement to revamp the existing distribution system for ensuring a healthy India. The Central government and other state governments should learn from Odisha about nutrition-based budgeting and the effective policies for our healthy children and the healthy future of India.