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How affordable is food in India?

Good News: India's hunger isn't worsening. Bad News: It's not improving either. Reason: We produce food, but don't manage to distribute it well.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2012 21:30 IST
Zia Haq

Good News: India's hunger isn't worsening. Bad News: It's not improving either. Reason: We produce food, but don't manage to distribute it well.

If all the sacks of grains in India's federally held stocks were to be laid next to one another, it could stretch up to the moon and back.

From being a net importer of foodgrains in the early years since India gained Independence, we have managed to produce a surplus. From about 50 million tonnes during the 50s to over 250 million tonnes during 2011-12, this is a quantum jump.

However, that remains the sum of all that we have achieved. Higher production doesn't automatically mean higher consumption. With more hungry people than sub-Saharan Africa (Global Hunger Index 2009), there's hardly any reason to celebrate.

India's poor performance on hunger is now settled. In contrast to images of Sudan's scrawny children with distended bellies, hunger in India remains largely invisible because it is driven not by near-death starvation but by sweeping malnourishment and calorie deficiency. Simply put, too little food lacking in essential nutrients has resulted in the world's largest proportion of stunted children with poor brains. Worse, their poor health actually begins even before they are born: in the womb of their half-fed mothers.

A new survey reinforces India's poor nutritional outcomes. The Global Food Security Index 2012, released in New Delhi on Wednesday, has ranked India 66th among 105 nations, placing it in a "moderate" category and citing affordability rather than availability as a key food security threat for Indians.

According to the index, India is highly food insecure compared to China (39) and slightly lower than Sri Lanka (62), although India fared well against Pakistan (75) and Bangladesh (81).

The findings bear out India's key food security problem: although the country has consistently raised farm production, lower incomes and rising prices mean not everyone can afford nutritious food.

Brought out by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a think-tank within the influential Economist magazine group, and sponsored by US farm MNC DuPont, the index measured nations on 25 key indicators, going beyond just hunger. Countries were assessed to gauge those most and least vulnerable to food insecurity through the categories of affordability, availability, and quality and safety.

India scored highest in food availability (51.3) but lowest (38.4) in terms of food access also points to its poor ability to move food efficiently because of infrastructure problems, despite being the world's largest producer of milk and edible oils, and the second-largest producer of wheat and sugar.

"One of the key problems is that in India, it takes great effort to move food from point A to B," says the EIU's Pratibha Thaker, who anchored the index, said.

However, India's food-based social security programme, such as those for below poverty line, gave it a positive score of 3, higher than the world average of 2.3.