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From food security to reducing malnutrition: Misplaced policy priorities

A
more nuanced understanding of how food and agricultural policies in India have
evolved over time could be a very useful guide in understanding why nutritional
outcomes continue to fare poorly. It is a widely accepted fact that the
agricultural sector remains key to improved nutritional status. However, given
the role played by electoral arithmetic and political economy factors in the
formulation of economic policies, one cannot ignore how changing political
paradigms and priorities have affected agricultural policies. This, in turn,
has serious implications for the nutritional outcomes in India.

At
TCI, my research takes a retrospective view of the changing policy paradigms
regarding agriculture and food policy in India. In my work here, I study how the
policy framework has not been able to evolve around the larger rubric of a “nutrition”
policy with clear aims to tackle malnutrition in its multiple dimensions. The
ultimate aim of adequate food intake is to have a nourished body and healthy
living. Merely sufficient food quantity is not enough. It is however strange to
note that this easy logic seems to have no takers and the issue of malnutrition
receives merely lip service.

Malnutrition and policy
priorities

India
prides itself on having come a long way from the days it depended upon food aid
to alleviate hunger. Post the green revolution of the 1960s, massive
productivity gains led to self-sufficiency in food production. This pride,
however, is tainted by the poor performance on the nutrition front. What ails
agricultural policy is that it has not led to sufficient nutritional gains. I
(along with Prabhu Pingali and Bhaskar Mitra) explore this question in a forthcoming paper in the journal Global Food Security, where we talk about this disconnect between
policy priorities and the malnutrition challenges in the country. We deliberate
upon the long and difficult path it has been to move from food security as the
welfare objective, to improved nutrition as the overarching goal.

If
one looks at the current agriculture and food policy, farmer’s interests are at
the forefront. The stated objective of this has been to increase agricultural
profitability and reduce farmer distress. Immediately after assuming office,
the current Prime Minister promised all his efforts to double farmer’s income by 2022. Before that, the earlier
government had waived off loans in an unprecedented bailout announcement
in 2008-09 as a relief measure for distressed farmers. While agricultural
policies need to have welfare of farmers as the objective, it needs to be in
tune with the nutritional challenges facing the country as well. Across the
globe, it is increasingly being realized that merely greater income or higher
economic growth is not sufficient for reducing malnutrition. Ultimately, farmers
are also consumers of food and their overall welfare depends upon what is grown
and available in the market as well.

Figure 1: Malnutrition among children (< 5 years)

image
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Source: Rapid Survey of Children (RSOC), 2013.
Note: The statistics presented here are for rural
areas only.

If one looks at the state wise performance
in nutrition, while it is clear that the poorer states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar,
Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh fare worst on the nutritional
indicators, poorer performance of the relatively better off states like Gujarat
and Maharashtra raises serious questions (Figure 1). This offers a useful
illustration of how things have gone wrong on nutrition. Focusing only on
income growth as a driver of nutrition or self-sufficiency in food production
as a metric for nutrition is misplaced.

Food security schemes

Moving beyond this meta-question of why the policy circles have not accorded
enough attention to nutrition, my research at TCI also explores the
micro-questions on how the food based
social support programs work and the issues faced therein. In my ongoing research,
I look at the Public Distribution System (PDS) and food procurement operations
in a more detailed way as the policy changes in the procurement and
distribution of food lies at the heart of changing the food security narrative
in India.  

Among
the two major government sponsored initiatives, National Food Security Mission
(NFSM) was launched in 2007 for encouraging food production, and the National
Food Security Bill became a law (National Food Security Act (NFSA)) in 2013. To
support rural income, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA, later
renamed as Mahatma Gandhi NREGA (MG-NREGA)) was launched in 2004. The other
existing food assistance schemes such as the Public Distribution System (PDS),
Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS)
also got a new lease of life with rapid improvements in their functions. These
schemes, especially PDS and ICDS, which were declared as non-functional, have
showed remarkable improvements over time.

To
complement the improvements in the PDS, state governments have been trying to
overhaul the grains procurement side as well. Traditionally, the Food
Corporation of India (FCI) has been responsible for the procurement, storage
and transportation of the food grains, while food distribution remains the job
of state governments. In 1997-98, the Government of India, introduced the
Decentralized Procurement Scheme (DCP), under which the state government could
carry out procurement and distribution of foodgrains themselves. The High Level Committee  on restructuring of Food Corporation of India
(FCI)
which came out with
a report in 2015 also called for a complete move towards decentralization
pointing out the diseconomies of scale inherent in FCI’s operations. DCP would
ensure greater coverage of farmers under the minimum support price, improvements
in procurement efficiency, reduction in losses during transit and the promotion
of procurement in the non-traditional regions of the country. Initially, not
many states were inclined towards adopting the new DCP system, but gradually
many of these states have moved towards it.  Until now, 12 states have adopted DCP and have
benefited not only from an increase in procurement, but production as well.

Moving
from a national to sub-national policy perspective, why only 12 states and not
the others is a natural follow up question. India is a federal republic where
agriculture is a state subject. State governments are using their authority to
reform agriculture.  Watch out for this
space as I move from a discussion on the national level policy reforms to
sub-national policy innovations in my next blog.

By Andaleeb Rahman

Andaleeb Rahman (ar687@cornell.edu) is a
Postdoctoral Associate at the Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI). His research
focuses on the reforms in food and agricultural policy in India and its
implications for nutritional outcomes. More specifically, his work explores the
changing nature of food procurement and distribution in India.
Follow him on twitter @AndaleebR.