Distributive policy

The pangs of Indian food production, politics

There is something familiarly ominous about the way the Union government dismissed India’s low ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI), released earlier this month. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, in an official response, said the methodology used in the peer-reviewed report, which ranked India 107th out of 121 countries, was flawed.

The technicalities argument – ​​how do you quantify something as complex as a nation’s hunger based on the health of its children, for example? – is also familiar. This is an important question, but it also serves as a starting point for broader discussions related to politics, poverty, social exclusion and access to food, hidden hunger (deficiency in micronutrients) and deficiencies in agricultural supply and distribution systems. .

Union Health Ministry officials, following a review by the GHI, led by Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, said the report “exaggerated” the measure of hunger. Experts say these diversions are in line with policies adopted by successive Center governments that have failed to achieve zero hunger goals, even in their vision documents. “He’s defending the indefensible,” food and agriculture policy expert Devinder Sharma said of attempts to ignore the GHI.

Read also | Ranked 107th, India slams ‘wrong’ global hunger index citing methodological issues

“Why should hunger persist in a democracy? Why are we left with excess stocks and how can we export grain when we cannot feed our own? We aspire to be a $5 trillion economy, with the largest population of hungry people. This is the result of priorities that were not aligned with inclusive growth,” Sharma added.

India scored 29.1 in the 2022 GHI; the index classifies scores between 20 and 34.9 as indicating a “serious” level of hunger. The report draws two of its key findings from India’s National Family Health Survey 5 (2019-21). The country’s child wasting rate (share of children under five who are low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition), 19.3%, is the highest in the world. Its rate of stunting in children (proportion of children under five who are short for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition) is 35.5%. Undernourishment of the total population (16.3%) and infant mortality (3.3%) are the other two indicators used by the GHI.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), India is the world’s largest producer of milk and pulses and the world’s second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugar cane, peanuts, vegetables and fruits.

According to FAO’s 2022 World Food Security and Nutrition report, 70.5% of Indians could not afford a healthy diet in 2020. The report assesses the cost of a healthy diet in India at $2.97 (per person per day).

Under the policy, many of those who cannot afford healthy food are covered as beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) 2013, which provides for the distribution of subsidized food grains. The law, which is based on a “life cycle approach”, contains special provisions allowing pregnant women, nursing mothers and children aged six months to 14 years to receive free nutritious meals through anganwadis. .

The evolution of a key policy guideline – from a focus on well-being to entitlement – ​​is important, but it does not rely on a holistic approach to tackling hunger and malnutrition.

Beyond the numbers, Arun Maira, a former member of the Planning Commission, traced India’s unbalanced response to malnutrition to the problem of thinking and working in silos, when the subject demanded a coordinated and multidisciplinary approach .

“First, malnutrition is a systemic problem, caused by a combination of factors. It cannot be solved by only providing more nutrition to children. Diarrhea due to polluted water and poor sanitation wastes nutrition in the body,” he said.

In addition, the health of pregnant women determines the health of babies at birth, which affects their future health, he added.

Read also | A state of denial: India’s response to global reports

Food distribution systems

In March 2020, the government announced the free distribution of an additional 5 kg of food grains (rice/wheat) to about 80 crore NFSA beneficiaries, under the leadership of Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY), in more than their entitlement to the ration card. Under the PM-GKAY scheme, about 1,121 lakh MT of food grains have been distributed to states and UTs so far.

The mass cancellation of ration cards for non-compliance with the Aadhar bond adds a dimension to the problem.

The GHI, compiled by Irish humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide and German nonprofit Welthungerhilfe, took note of India’s subnational context in its efforts to target stunting in children. He refers to research that found a decline in stunting in four states – Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Odisha and Tamil Nadu – between 2006 and 2016, mainly due to improved coverage of health and nutrition interventions. , household conditions (including food security), as well as maternal health. and education.

While public programs provide access to a few basic food grains, Kavitha Kuruganti, from the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, explained that the fight against malnutrition based on a two-grain approach, which concentrates the most widely produced, is inherently flawed. “It’s not just a question of availability. There is a strong body of evidence that should encourage us to approach nutrition security and food access differently. Within the framework of the law, we must bring in crops that have been neglected throughout, such as millet. The promotion of iron-fortified rice (contraindicated for thalassemia patients) as a solution is indicative of the problems with the current approach,” Kavitha said.

The weakening of culture models also persisted as a policy gap. “Factors such as soil deficiency are crucial – the way forward lies in an interdependent approach, in measures that ensure the health of soils, plants, people and the planet, but there is no no political will to move it forward,” she added.

The broken chains

There is proof of concept that validates the importance of local food supply chains in ensuring wider access, an idea that has not been endorsed by policy makers.

TN Prakash Kammardi, former chairman of the Karnataka Agricultural Prices Board, agreed that “an apparent failure” in establishing effective distribution systems has led to serious access gaps. In theory, the Public Distribution System and organized agricultural markets should have worked, but they are also systems that allow outside intervention.

The FAO report mentions state measures in India that enable farmers, thanks to digital innovations, to transport their products to markets. The entry of agricultural aggregators, along with technological innovations in packaging and storage, have created new channels between farmers and agricultural retailers, resulting in better market access.

A critical point is how effectively retailers are able to meet location and seasonality challenges for short-lived products. “Take the tomatoes grown in Kolar, for example. How do you ensure these are stored and distributed across seasons and locations? This is where transport and warehousing facilities come in,” said Kammardi, who previously headed the Department of Agricultural Economics at Bangalore University of Agricultural Sciences.

At different levels of the supply chain, storage issues play a major role in food loss. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research – Central Institute of Post-harvest Engineering and Technology, in a 2016 nationwide study, found that harvest and post-harvest losses in cereals were in the order of 4, 65% (maize) to 5.99% (sorghum). In legumes, losses varied between 6.36% (pigeon peas) and 8.41% (chickpeas).

Citing losses in vegetables between 4.58% (tapioca) and 12.44% (tomato) and in fruits between 6.7% (papaya) and 15.88% (guava), the study underlined the importance of multi-crop cold storage to compensate for losses. Storage problems contributed significantly to vegetable losses, according to the study. He also estimated a 7.19% loss of eggs and a 10.52% loss of marine fish, both due to inadequate cold storage in the market.

Supply and distribution systems are also sensitive to traders and intermediaries who operate in organized networks. Kammardi pointed out how a “minor disturbance” created at a state’s border could hold up truckloads of onions from other states for a day, driving up prices in local markets.

Highlighting the importance of local production, supply and distribution chains, Devinder Sharma highlighted a state initiative in Brazil that links food security to social empowerment. “Markets are set up every 20 km. The state buys all the products that farmers bring to these markets, but on one condition: farmers will have to send their children to school,” Sharma said.