As the street prices of most food items skyrocket far beyond the wholesale price-based inflation of 7 per cent, India’s fight against malnutrition is taking a severe hit. Various experts told HT that when you mix rising prices with steadily falling per capita foodgrain absorption, this amounts to a double whammy for most Indians’ diet.
Inflation figures don’t really capture how low income households are coping with double-digit price rise. Department of Consumer Affairs numbers show that within last year, the retail rate of mustard oil has climbed by 60 per cent in Lucknow, rice by 44 per cent in Hyderabad, wheat by 39 per cent in Bhopal, tur by 28 per cent in Aizwal and milk by 20 per cent in Patna. This means, says Dr Vandana Prasad of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, daily wagers have started diluting their ‘dal’ with more water, cutting down on buying milk for their children and so on.
A forthcoming report shows that in certain communities, prevalence of malnutrition is already much higher than that suggested by the national average of 21 per cent.
Mridula Bajaj, who is the executive director of Mobile Creches, says it is up to 70 per cent among children (under six years) and around 80 per cent among mothers in the migrant households of Delhi and NCR, 425 of which were surveyed by her organisation recently.
Dr Utsa Patnaik, professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning in JNU, points out that the annual foodgrain absorption per head that rose from 152 kg to 177 kg between 1950-55 and 1989-91, had already regressed to a 50 years old level ten years later. Consumption of cereals and pulses has also declined by 13 and 27 per cent between 1990 and 2006.
Some explain this trend in terms of a more diversified food basket, arguing that the average intake of milk, meat, fruits and vegetables has been going up. While this may be true in the high income category,
veteran economist K.N. Kabra says it doesn’t explain how India’s per capita calorie consumption remains amongst the lowest in the world, or how declining cereals’ consumption has not been accompanied by any significant increase in the per capita calorie intake.
As for worsening indicators, given that anaemia in India is linked to poor nutrition, one of the most striking findings of NFHS-3 was an increase in anaemia among both women and children, with men’s anaemia levels also remaining unacceptably high.
Deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad Dr Veena Shatrugna rues that in a country with the highest prevalence of underweight children in the world, “malnutrition just couldn’t get any worse. But now it looks like it will”.