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Achieving Food and Nutrition Security: A Practitioners Perspective

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pooja Paswan
February 23, 2020

“Please, Sir, I Want Some More”
~Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

One of the things that Charles Dickens is trying to highlight is that there is a huge divide between the people at the top and the people at the bottom. The top and bottom are deeply connected in ways you may not like, and if you don’t take care of the bottom, the top will eventually crumble.

Over the years, India has made significant progress towards improving food and nutrition security. It has channeled its wide array of resources in curbing malnutrition, curtailing early childhood deaths and fortifying the food supplements with vital nutrients. Based on the previous data, stunting among children less than 5 years has declined from 48% to 38.4% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. During the same period, the percentage of underweight children has declined from 42.5% to 35.7%. The absolute levels of stunted and underweight children, however, remains high. The Government of India has implemented a number of schemes to address this major problem. However, a wide gap exists in regards to policy implementation and identifying social determinants.

A Practitioners Perspective

Approximately more than 800 million people are covered in India by providing food grains at affordable prices through the Public Distribution System. The Mid-Day-Meal Program, Sarva Shikha Abhiyan (Education for All), is providing nutritious cooked meals to 100 million children in primary schools. Additionally, food distribution governance is being strengthened through the digitization of ration cards and an online grievance redressal mechanism.

Further, sustainable and climate-adaptive agriculture has been endorsed by the government, inter alia, promoting organic farming and issuing 62 million Soil Health Cards to farmers. A comprehensive plan is also being implemented for doubling farmers’ income by 2022. The plethora of intervention requires major change in a short span of time.

Health is Disconnected from Agriculture and Women and Children’s Development

Health is often seen separately from agriculture and women and children’s development. Most of the policies related to food and nutrition security overlook key focus areas of growing obesity among children and adolescents and increased cases of hypertension. Policymakers need to be cognizant of the fact that approximately 80% of the population is getting almost 50% of the micronutrients. This raises serious concerns pertaining to the absorption and bioavailability of nutrients coupled with the affordability of food grains.

The policies related to women and child development focus on lowering Child Mortality Rate (C.M.R.) and Maternal Mortality Rate (M.M.R.) by encouraging institutional child birth and monitoring pregnancies through primary health centers at the village level. One organization, The Scheme for Adolescent Girls (SAG), has an aim of breaking the inter-generational life cycle of nutritional and gender disadvantage for self-development of adolescent girls. It seeks to improve their nutrition and health status by providing fortified supplements, since these girls will most likely be future mothers. However, the fortification process needs a careful scientific scrutiny. It requires a careful study of the micro biome of the gut and a scientific approach towards designing the supplements. For instance, wheat hinders with iron absorption. This must be taken into account before designing targeted beneficiary specific supplements.

Aligning Technology with Social Inclination

A majority of India’s poor live in rural areas, where farming—predominantly by smallholders—is the central economic activity. Large increases in agricultural investment will be needed both to raise incomes and increase the supply of food sustainably. Most of the investment will need to come from the private sector, but the government has an important role in establishing the framework conditions. Public investment, supported by development aid, can also complement and attract private investment.

Ensuring Incentive Compatibility in Agriculture

Welfare policies that support agriculture’s enabling environment, but do not distort incentives or crowd out the private sector, are likely to be more effective in the long term than specific subsidies to the agricultural sector. Thus, the government should identify priority areas for public spending including research, innovation and rural infrastructure, together with social protection and backstopping to ensure improved nutrition.

A consistent growth in agricultural productivity will increase food availability and benefit consumers to the extent that domestic prices are lower than they would otherwise be. Productivity gains will imply lower unit costs and also translate into higher incomes for innovating farmers. But the resulting decline in prices dissipates some of these gains. Therefore, farmers who fail to innovate will only experience the price decline and thus face adjustment pressure. For that reason, broad-based development is needed to ensure that less competitive farmers are pulled, rather than pushed, out of farming into more remunerative activities.

Food Security and Climate Change

The current climate change and the degradation of land, water and biodiversity resources are expected to require changes in production systems. The government should design policies at the national level aligned towards sustainable productivity objectives in the areas of agricultural R&D, technology development and skills.

With the drastically changing natural weather patterns, the government requires environmental policies to ensure well-defined property rights for natural resources and to tackle economy-wide environmental challenges. Given the local specificity of the challenges, targeted agri-environmental policies have a role to play to effectively redress negative environmental impacts and to ensure a better management of resources.

From, “Right to Food,” to “Right to Proper Nutrition”

Countries all over the planet are tackling with the problem of providing proper nutrition and sustainable domestic food production. It is pertinent for governments to remodel the institutional design towards targeting specific nutrition-based food security. Instead of checking all boxes of decentralization and lateral funding etc., the governments need to widen the PDS basket and fortify supplements scientifically, scaling nutrition through  a multi-sector approach and linking health with food security.

We must keep in mind, success does not require new technologies or leaps in productivity, just a commitment on the part of governments to use sound science and proven management techniques to maximize the biological productivity of resources.

Author: Pooja Paswan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. She has Ph. D in Public Administration and specializes in Public Policy. She was recipient of the ASPA 2019 Founders Fellow. She has worked extensively in the area of development administration and policy. She can be reached at https://jmi.academia.edu/PoojaPaswan and [email protected]. Twitter @poojapaswan

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