Vasanthi Raman

The Prime Minister’s pronouncements on the occasion of World Food Day commemorated the setting up of the Food and Agricultural Organization on October 16, 1945 and hailed not only the achievements of the food agencies of the UN, but also India’s supposed role in its achievements.

Apart from claiming that India was providing free rations to 80 crore Indians over the last 7-8 months, the PM also ‘dedicated’ to the nation 17 bio-fortified varieties of 8 crops on that day. (The question of the politics of micronutrients with its attendant dangers of corporatization was blandly bypassed).  These statements were meant to address the serious problems of malnutrition that India faces. Ironically, that very day, i.e. October 16, 2020, the Global Hunger Index showed that India has the highest prevalence of child wasting, reflecting acute undernutrition.

Statements such as those made by Modi are only intended to conceal the miserable plight of the majority of Indians as far as the questions of food security and malnutrition are concerned. One recent study done by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), “Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Rural India” and published in the journal Food Policy, points out that 3 out of 4 rural Indians cannot afford a nutritious diet as per the requirements set by the government’s premier nutrition body, the National Institute of Nutrition.  The findings are surprising and significant – India’s record as far as nutrition indicators is appalling despite the claim that India has achieved food security. The paper concludes that “…nutritious diets are too expensive and incomes far too low”. (The Hindu, Delhi, October 18, 2020, p.1)

Even the Comprehensive National Nutritional Survey 2016-18 revealed that over 40 million children are chronically malnourished and more than half of Indian women between the ages of 15 and 49 are anemic.

The initiatives of the Central and State governments to ensure food security during the COVID-19 pandemic are:  a) Public Distribution System (PDS) wherein 5 kilograms free foodgrain and 1 kg. of dal (lentils) to be given to those with ration cards for three months; b) Children’s and Women’s nutrition, i.e. supplementary nutrition for children under 6, pregnant and lactating  women at home or compensatory food security allowance; c) Social Pensions, Rs.1000 for social pensioners in 2 instalments over 3 months; d) Community Kitchens;  Rs.100 per homeless person to be provided to the states to feed three meals a day in night shelters.

The performance of these measures was indeed uneven, with some states performing better than others, depending on the quality of governance.  There have been many reports and surveys conducted by the Right to Food Network and other similar forums and networks that monitored and highlighted the woefully and cruelly inadequate nature of these initiatives.

The pillars of the Poshan Abhiyan (launched in 2018), the Government of India’s flagship programme to improve nutritional outcomes for children and pregnant women and lactating mothers has been the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and the National Health Mission (NHM).  The bulwark of these programmes and services have been the Anganwadi workers and the ASHAs (Auxiliary Social Health Activists), a gendered workforce that have borne the burden of providing health care in times of COVID-19 and have paid a heavy price for it.

The most important lesson that the pandemic has taught the world is the critical importance of public health care; those countries that have invested in primary healthcare have been able to weather the storm of the pandemic better than others.  

The experience of the pandemic has indeed foregrounded the deeply problematic nature of the government’s policy assumptions on a variety of fronts and point to the deep faultines in the policy framework.

One major lacuna points to the multi-dimensional nature of the question of malnutrition. There are inextricable links to the question of food security, to the question of distribution and accessibility of food for the majority of Indians. The other underlying question is that of climate change which is now looming large and affecting the livelihood security of vast sections of the people. This has implications for agro-biodiversity and will have serious repercussions on food and farm systems and overall cultures of people across large areas overflowing beyond national boundaries and requiring transnational imaginations and interventions.

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