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Union Budget 2021: Will Nirmala Sitharaman Address India’s Hunger Woes?

A file photo shows a child eating from a bowl on a street in a slum in Hyderabad. (AFP)

A file photo shows a child eating from a bowl on a street in a slum in Hyderabad. (AFP)

On the Global Hunger Index 2020, India ranked 94 among 107 countries – worse than Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has already whetted our appetites with a promise of a budget “like never before” but will she make enhanced allocations to strengthen India’s fight against acute hunger, despite various other expenditure heads vying for her attention in a rather tough year? She is already faced with the unenviable task of allocating more funds to public health in a pandemic year while tackling acute revenue shortage and worsening fiscal health. Will nutrition and hunger be given priority?

According to the Global Hunger Index 2020, India continued to fare worse than Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. We were only better than some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Afghanistan and North Korea. Among 107 countries, India ranked 94. Government’s own data – the National Family Health Survey 5 – shows a worsening of nutritional status of children less than five years of age and rising cases of anaemia in women. In 13 states and union territories, stunting (growth retardation) shot up in 2019. Child wasting, too, continued to be widespread while instances of underweight children below five reported a sharp rise, according to the NFHS 5 report.

Also, a survey by the ‘Right to Food Campaign’ released last month showed that the situation of hunger was “quite serious, even five months after the lockdown ended.” Two in three households across 11 states reported lower levels of income, every second household had reduced their intake of cereals, two in three had reduced intake of pulses and three in four households were consuming fewer vegetables as well as eggs/non-vegetarian items.

“Government support in the form of free ration and alternatives to school and anganwadi meals in the form of dry ration and/or cash transfers reached more than half the people (PDS having relatively better outreach). While this support from government programmes has been crucial, the staggering levels of hunger also showed the inadequacy of these schemes. Many are left out and even among those who did get the entitlements, the overall consumption was still lower than what it was before the lockdown,” the advocacy group said.

Nearly every second respondent said she had been skipping meals in the past 30 days and between September-October, every fourth respondent slept on an empty stomach.

So how can the FM strengthen India’s fight against hunger?

1. The Right to Food Campaign has demanded a universal public distribution system against the present system which provides a specified amount of free food grain only to ration cardholders. The government did announce enhanced quota of free food grain after a nationwide lockdown last summer and had also expanded the scope of this scheme to reach more poor. But the scheme was time-bound and food grain availability was not made universal. Also, the ambitious One-Nation-One-Ration-Card project, which allows portability of ration card, is still not operational across the country.

2. The group also suggested increased funding for the mid-day meal scheme and anganwadi-cum-creches. It has asked for the Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana to be expanded to include all pregnant women, without the present conditions.

Chandrakant S Pandav, a member of the National Nutrition Council, said he was in favour of the expansion of this scheme to cover all pregnant and lactating mothers and its integration with child nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life.

3. The role of the Food Corporation of India (FCI ) in eliminating hunger cannot be overemphasised. FCI is tasked with procuring food grain from farmers at the minimum support price (MSP) and then supplying it under the PDS system at subsidised prices. Perhaps one of the biggest problems before the FM is the bulging food subsidy bill and her inability to increase allocations, forcing the FCI to borrow larger amounts each year. In this scenario, expecting enhanced allocations for the FCI this year may be unrealistic

4. The Right to Food Campaign has also asked for doubling the number of days under the national rural employment guarantee scheme (MNREGA) to 200 besides launching a similar scheme for the urban poor. MNREGA is a rural job guarantee scheme which has seen record demand in this pandemic year. Earlier, the government increased allocation under MNREGA to a little over Rs 1 lakh crore. There is also a demand for replicating this job guarantee scheme for the urban poor.

5. While all of these demands require a substantial burden on the exchequer, perhaps what Pandav said would be less taxing. He is advocating a single minister for agriculture, food and nutrition security. “We cannot talk of nutritional security in isolation. With a single minister in charge of these three functions, an integrated approach to eliminating hunger will be possible”. Pandav highlighted the fact that there has not been a single meeting of the National Nutrition Council – set up to oversee hunger mitigation - in the last one year.

It is pertinent to note here that the government already runs a number of programmes to eliminate hunger and also runs ‘POSHAN Abhiyaan’, an acronym for Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition. The scheme was launched in 2017 with the stated objective of convergence with various ongoing nutrition programmes. The total budget allocated at the start was Rs 9,046.17 crore, with the Centre’s share at Rs 2,849.54 crore. Stiff targets had been fixed too: reduction in stunting, under-nutrition, anaemia (among young children, women and adolescent girls) and lowering birth weight by 2 per cent, 2 per cent, 3 per cent and 2 per cent per annum respectively. Stunting was to be brought down from 38.4 per cent as per NFHS-4 to 25 per cent by 2022. Nearly three years down the line, these lofty targets will very likely be missed. Additionally, a substantial part of the budget allocated to Poshan Abhiyaan lies unutilised each year.

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