India has the highest number of undernourished people, malnourished and underweight children, double than Sub-Saharan Africa. Mohd Mustaquim finds out the missing links which can be bridged through the collective efforts of policymakers, academia and private players. It will help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals
India faces a serious problem of under-nutrition which poses challenges of health among the lower strata of society. Nutritional insecurity in India has adverse impact on the socio-economic condition. The women and children are the most vulnerable class for the nutritional insecurity. It has direct impact on the capacity of people to engage in economic activities, affecting the economic growth.
According to the UN Hunger Report, released in May 2015, India has the highest number of undernourished people in the world, which has increased to 196.4 million in 2014-16 from 189.9 million in 2010-12.
Moreover, a 2011 World Bank report reveals that the number of underweight children in India is highest in the world, nearly double than Sub-Saharan Africa. It is also one of the highest ranking countries in the globe in terms of the number of children suffering from malnutrition.
Conditions of high growth, existence of large social safety net programmes and growing agricultural sector have not been quite effective in tackling the problem of malnutrition in India, arising from inadequate access to quality food. Hence, there is a need to revisit the agenda of nutritional security. The policymakers need to understand the role of evolving partnerships and policy imperatives in strengthening the efforts towards a nutrition secure India.
T Nandakumar, Chairman, National Dairy Development Board, says, “The framework for addressing the challenge has to focus on economic, social, environmental as well as technological aspects related to the issue of nutritional security. We already have infrastructure and systems in place to tackle the challenge and what we need is a stronger operating mechanism to address the delivery deficit.”
There is a need of measurable parameters to monitor impact of programmes like National Food Security Mission, National Rural Health Mission, among others on nutritional security. Furthermore, the measurable parameters demand understanding the reason for high variability in nutritional security across States in India, synergising the efforts of various departments to ensure collective efforts in the same direction and assigning a defined role to the private sector to be a part of the various initiatives in a bigger way.
It is a paradox that farmer who is the producer of the food is also a major part of the nutritionally challenged population. The situation of under-nutrition has serious epigenetic impacts. Dr RB Singh, former president, National Academy of Agricultural Sciences suggests for a partnership between Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and private sector on the five pillars of Zero Hunger Program. “Also private sector should focus on three of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) such as ending poverty, hunger and ensuring healthy lives,” Dr Singh says.
Despite many transitions in the socio-economic frontier, India is still struggling to put together the missing links that are critical to ensure nutritional security of its citizens. Approximately, every study has given India a low score on nutrition and hunger comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the fact, the numbers and the methodology of studies have been questioned and debated, it cannot be ignored that India needs to strategically address the problem as soon as possible.
Achieving nutritional security
Shyam Khadka, FAO Representative in India says that in order to achieve nutritional security, some key aspects to focus on are – strengthening the public procurement programme particularly on storage front, due importance to be given to women education as empowering women directly impacts nutrition in the family. The FAO official highlights the need of striking a balance between what is produced and what is consumed, strengthening agro-processing and lastly focus on the deprived tribal population.
India is a leading producer of milk, fruits and vegetables, the paradox is that India is also among the top four countries facing serious nutritional challenges.
Apart from the government, private sector can play an important role in securing nutritional security in India. This can come through product innovation; pledge to move towards healthier and nutrient rich foods. With increasing incomes and changing lifestyles of a large section of the population, awareness and demand for safe and healthy foods are increasing. This is reflected in the expanding market for such commodities giving the Indian consumer a diversified basket to choose from.
India has gradually shifted from an era of dependence on food imports to an era of self sufficiency and further exports which is a remarkable achievement. In line with this shift, Jan Delbaere, Deputy Country Director – India, World Food Program, says, “The WFP has also transformed its role from food aid provider to technical assistance provider to India. WFP is currently working closely with India to address the challenge of nutritional insecurity by partnering in three major programmes, food distribution, Midday meal and Integrated Child Development Services.”
For a developing country like India where agriculture plays a vital role for the economy, it is critical to link nutrition security to the people. The linkages are manifold, from on-farm technology, diversified production basket and livelihood opportunities that improve availability, economic access and affordability of nutritious food, better healthcare, education and overall standard of living.
While the government plays a critical role in creating the right environment and incentives to make agriculture help the poor and vulnerable sections of the society, the private players bring in the much needed investments and expertise to realise the outcomes on the ground. Going forward, the overarching agricultural and food policies need to focus on sustainable development of nutrition-driven agricultural practices.
Micro-nutrient malnutrition or hidden hunger is rampant and widespread in India, puts a large section of the population, particularly women and children, to the risk of under-nutrition and poor health conditions. Thus, fortification is identified as an effective mechanism to address the micro-nutrient gaps in regular diets.
“The need of the hour is to focus on fortification in a big way. Innovations like high zinc rice, among others have to be commercialised and scaled up to meet the crisis,” says, Dr T Longvah, Director in-charge, National Institute of Nutrition.
With increasing demand for nutritious food, private players have the opportunity to build their brands and expand their market share. However, there are challenges in using certain fortificants without changing the colour or flavour of foods as also interaction among nutrients and their impact on absorption.
Under-nutrition is one of the biggest roadblocks in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Thus, the policymakers, academia, food processing sector, among other stakeholders can come together to provide the right nutrient food to the last person of the country. Policies as well as technological interventions can bring a big change in feeding the right food to the most vulnerable sections of the society.