Packed granaries and poor nutrition
Even as the government and civil society are engaged in a tug-of-war over ways to address corruption in public life, the urgency of the National Food Security Bill 2011, that seeks to ensure food security for the people, seems to be stuck in a limbo. Differences of opinion on the scope of the law and the ability of the official machinery to effectively implement it are yet to be resolved. Meanwhile, the challenges of food and nutrition security are increasing. The country is slowly but surely racing towards nutritional insecurity with several hundred millions facing malnutrition or under-nutrition because of a serious deficiency in protein and calorie intake on a regular basis. Tens of millions of tonnes of foodgrain rotting in government warehouses may create a smug feeling, but do nothing to ensure food and nutrition security. No wonder, India is low on the Human Development Index and high on the Global Hunger Index.
The National Family Health Survey data are startling. As much as 43 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight while 70 per cent are anaemic. Young women and nursing mothers are the worst affected. The long-term adverse impact of PEM (Protein Energy Malnutrition) on human health, labour productivity and general wellbeing are well documented. Perpetual under-nutrition results in low resistance to infectious diseases and increased morbidity. New Delhi claims to accord high priority to malnutrition issues, with at least half a dozen schemes to address the problem being implemented by five Ministries. But the progress in promoting nutrition is not uniform across the country and there is nothing to suggest that ‘food' supplied under the various welfare schemes is nutritious. The country deserves a far better coordinated approach to eliminating pervasive malnutrition. In their zeal to secure the food rights of citizens, policymakers must recognise the interconnectedness of agriculture, nutrition and health. Agriculture is not only a source of food and thereby nutrition, it is also a source of income that helps buy nutritious food. So, if agriculture survives, the country will survive.
Clearly, the India growth story is at once real and surreal. Real because our macro performance continues to be robust, making the country one of world's fastest growing economies; and surreal because the micro challenges of poverty, hunger, malnutrition and illiteracy have not been addressed with focused attention. Growth without development is an irony that India testifies to. The micro challenges have the potential to drag down growth. With over $300 billion in the forex kitty, India can afford to import food to meet any shortage, but money cannot buy nutrition. The latter must be tackled on a war-footing domestically with good governance.
Agriculture is not only a source of food and thereby nutrition, it is also a source of income that helps buy nutritious food.
- Umesh Shanmugam