India’s Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, told reporters last month he was optimistic the Indian economy would see a return to the 9 per cent growth achieved before the global downturn. In the April-June quarter of 2010, the economy almost achieved that, growing at 8.8% and placing India firmly behind China as the world’s second fastest growing economy. But if the government is optimistic about wealth creation, it is less certain about wealth distribution.
Over 40 per cent of Indians live on less than one dollar per day and 43% of children under five are underweight. Now a new report, ‘The State of Food Insecurity in Urban India’, produced by the World Food Programme and the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation suggests that malnutrition may even be on the rise in India, despite the country’s growing wealth. According to the report “indicators of urban food insecurity....reveal an alarming picture.”
India does have a national programme to tackle child malnutrition, called the “Integrated Childhood Development Service” (ICDS). Under this scheme, there are now more than a million nutrition centres across India, responsible for the nutritional care of pregnant women and children up to school-age. As well as weighing children and advising on diet, the centres also provide free daily meals to children when they turn two (though there are no provisions for babies and toddlers). However, for poor families where both parents work all day, it is often impossible to find the time to take their children to the nearest nutrition centre, which can be many kilometres away. One expert in the field also says that poor families from slum areas are discouraged from attending because they are not always “treated with respect”.
In addition to the nutrition centres, the poor are also entitled to subsidised food such as rice, sugar and wheat. However the system breaks down for a number of reasons. Families are supposed to buy their subsidised food in one lot each month, but many poor are unable to save the money necessary to buy their complete allowance (20 kg of wheat and 3 kg of rice). Ration cards are also taken by unscrupulous officials as bribes or by shopkeepers as collateral on loans. And some of the poorest families are itinerant workers or have no fixed address and are therefore unable to obtain a ration card in the first place. Overall the food rationing system is not a success. A study conducted by the Planning Commission in 2004 found that only 40 per cent of food allocated through the public distribution system was reaching the poorest people. Most was ending up on the black market or simply rotting in storehouses.
When it was elected to government in 2009, the Congress party promised to lift Indians out of poverty and one of India’s Millennium Development Goals is to halve malnutrition by 2015. But these goals are still a long way from being achieved. Officials are now looking into the introduction of a computerized food distribution system and electronic ration cards. And in the spring, government ministers will debate a new ‘Right to Food’ bill. But no one is yet certain what new solutions this bill will put forward and how determined the government really is to tackle poverty and stem the rise of malnutrition.