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Demystifying India’s hunger problem

• India’s cereal produce has continuously surged in last couple of years from 275.11 million tonnes to 283.37 million tonnes.
• The decadal growth rate compounded annually for cereal production in India remained at 2.3%, which articulates a continuous growth in basic food availability per capita. From the trade point of view also, India has remained a net food exporting economy over past two decades.
• Still, India’s performance in eradicating hunger is abysmal. India’s rank according to global hunger index report of 2019 is 102 out of total 117 countries considered.
• The US has a policy to first feed its people and livestock, and then export it. India does not have such a policy.

As a developing economy India has progressed substantially in last two decades mainly with respect to its economic growth. With rising proportion of middle class and changing eating habits, the common man’s platter has witnessed a dynamic shift.

To further add, India’s cereal produce has continuously surged in last couple of years from 275.11 million tonnes to 283.37 million tonnes. The decadal growth rate compounded annually for cereal production in India has remained at 2.3%, which articulates a continuous burgeoning of basic food availability per capita. From the trade point of view also, India has remained a net food exporting economy over the past two decades. In 2014, India’s net agri exports were at US$ 19.54 billion, which slightly plummeted to US$ 15.56 billion in 2018.

Source: ITC Trade Map

India is riding high on the agricultural success story it has written over the past few years. On an aggregate basis, India’s agriculture production is in surplus. We import only a few items and are net exporters. The country exports as much as 12 million tonnes of rice. It would seem absolutely inane to think that net food grain availability per person has not increased.

There are many definitions of food grains. According to some, it comprises only wheat and rice. Others say cereals and pulses are both food grains. When we discuss food grain availability, we discount other important horticulture production. If we look at aggregate food, which includes cereals, vegetables, fruits, coarse grains, milk, meat, eggs and fish, then the per capita availability is very high. At present, we produce more fruits and vegetables than food grains and even consume more.

According to APEDA data, India is the largest producer in the world of milk, cashew nuts, coconuts, tea, ginger, turmeric, black pepper and coffee. It also has the world’s largest cattle population (281 million). It is the second largest producer of wheat, rice, sugar, groundnut and inland fish. It is the third largest producer of tobacco. India accounts for 10% of the world fruit production with first rank in the production of banana and sapota. We recently achieved self-sufficiency in pulses.

THEN WHY IS INDIA STILL HUNGRY?

Despite being a leading producer and exporter of food products, India’s performance in eradicating hunger remains shockingly abysmal. India’s rank according to global hunger index report of 2019 is 102 out of total 117 countries considered. Economies like North Korea, Niger, Cameroon fared better than India, according to the report mentioned.  Neighbouring countries too bagged relatively improved positions like Sri Lanka (66), Nepal (73), Pakistan (94) and Bangladesh (88). It is even more startling to learn that India is even ranked lower than some sub-Saharan African countries. India’s hunger indicators have a huge impact on the total indicators of the region owing to its large population, according to the index.

What could be the issue? Paucity and accessibility of good quality food is one reason, but low quantity of food intake is also a significant factor. When both are present, children grow up abnormally as ‘wasted’ or ‘stunted’. Children living in an unhygienic environment with difficulties in access to safe drinking water suffer from water-borne diseases and diarrhoea which results in underweight children and subsequent wasting.

Infant mortality too exacerbates the hunger scenario as it is also high at 4.8% due to the same reasons of undernourishment and poor healthcare. When it comes to stunting in children under five, the country has seen a decline, but it’s still high at 37.9% in 2019 from 42% in 2010.

Source: https://www.globalhungerindex.org/india.html; values pertaining to indicators identified in the report

Hence undernourishment can be attributed to a large number of reasons, but perhaps the main reason could be persistent low incomes of households as well as lack of sanitation, potable water, and regular health check-ups.

Over the years, cereal consumption and expenditure have declined. It reflects that our plate or the food basket is diversifying. People are moving away from cereals. The higher income group is eating less, and losing out on nutrition. It is important to generate awareness on the importance of minimum energy needs and increased physical activities to absorb energy from foods. To climb up the hunger index ought to be the top priority for India, which is staking its claim to becoming a global power.

Until we solve our hunger problem, we cannot claim to have a surplus in food grains. The US has a policy to first feed its people and livestock, and then export it. India does not have such a policy. We claim to be a net exporter country. On paper this might be true, but we need to explore another angle. If we distribute food grains equally among people during the years of surplus production, we will prove to be in deficit. Instead of producing in surplus then, we are actually struggling to be self-sufficient.

States like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh do have surplus production, but poor management leaves many hungry. We do not have infrastructure such as cold storage and transportation facilities required to manage surplus produce. The more these states produce, more there is to rot. If the situation persists, India will soon become a net food importing country. Therefore, we should revisit our assumptions of self-sufficiency in food and manage our food processing and distribution more efficiently, so that India is able to effectively address its daunting hunger problem. 

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