The great Indian economic dream could falter if the most basic need of people, namely food security, is not taken care of. A staggering 64 per cent Indians go to bed hungry and suffer from chronic malnutrition. While we may rejoice that spending on food as a percentage of income in both rural and urban areas is going down, the poor still have to fork out a disproportionately high percentage on food. For every 43 paise that the urban dweller spends on food, his rural counterpart’s share is 55 paise. In addition, the food that the villager gets is of poor quality and contributes to nutritional deficiency. For those in the poorer states living below the poverty line, as much as 70 per cent of income goes on food. For India’s 200 million people, who live on less than Rs 12 per day, this is bad news. And worse, the many schemes that the government has put in place to battle hunger and malnutrition don’t seem to be working well enough.
One major failure is in the area of child nutrition where, it now turns out, we are worse off than sub-Saharan Africa. The silver lining in the cloud is that instead of trying to obfuscate the issue, the Ministry of Women and Child Development has admitted that its showcase Integrated Child Development Scheme has failed to produce the desired results. The admission did not come easy, and only after both the Supreme Court and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen rapped it on the knuckles for this lapse. Malnutrition among children in the age group 0-6 has declined a miserable 1 per cent even as the economy moves ahead at 8-plus. Why is this happening? No prizes for guessing. Nutritional intervention is not reaching the target children thanks to the now familiar bureaucratic bungling and lack of political will. Even the content of the food appears inadequate.
And the ministry has come up with what it obviously thinks is an innovative solution — restructure the whole scheme with the stress on more nutritious and balanced food. We may be pardoned for thinking that such considerations would have been taken into account in the first place. With 47 per cent children suffering from malnutrition, the ministry had better find a way to get the scheme moving effectively. If not, economists say that there could be a 5 per cent loss in GDP due to malnutrition alone. The government should guard against the usual practice of setting up yet another scheme to cover up for one that has failed. The effort should be to take a look at existing schemes for food security and nutrition and streamline them. The UPA government is committed to development issues especially for the rural poor, women and children. This is good news. Now let’s see some results on the ground.