Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Why the Right to Food Bill will not work

In a Mint interview last week, nutrition expert Howarth Bouis pointed out that the roots of India’s nutritional crisis do not lie in the lack of cereals or aggregate calories. This expert—the head of HarvestPlus, an organization spearheading global efforts to breed more nutritious crops—has argued that the deficit of important vitamins and minerals required for good health is the main cause of the problem.

While rice, wheat and milk have become cheaper and more widely available in India in the past 40 years, other nutrient-rich foods have seen a steady increase in prices. Cereals such as rice and wheat, and milk, saw a sharp rise in yields and a big drop in prices after the green and white revolutions. While the calorie requirements of a hungry nation were met, the nutrient deficit was not addressed. Thus, despite a sharp fall in poverty and hunger, malnutrition remains astonishingly high; nearly half of India’s children are stunted and a majority of the women, anaemic.

India’s policies appear to be in a time warp though, with a misplaced focus on cereals and aggregate calories. The proposed food security legislation conflates hunger with malnutrition and fails to address India’s nutritional crisis. It promises subsidized cereals to a majority of Indians despite their need for other food items such as fruits, vegetables and animal proteins.

Apart from the extremely poor, who form a small fraction of the population, nearly everyone else can afford the rice and wheat they require, as Bouis points out. A February report of the National Sample Survey Office shows the proportion of people not getting two square meals a day dropped to about 1% in rural India and 0.4% in urban India in 2009-10. Interestingly, the average cereal consumption of families who reported that they went hungry in some months of the year (in the month preceding the survey) was roughly equal to the average cereal consumption of those who reported receiving adequate meals throughout the year. The stark difference across income-classes lies in the level of spending on non-cereal food items, the survey points out.

What a majority of Indians actually can’t afford is right food at the right time. Addressing that deficit requires more fine-tuned policies. It requires investment in nutrition education, in early childhood care, and a greater attention to women’s health. As this newspaper has pointed out earlier, the food security law may win votes but won’t help India win the war against malnutrition.

Does the proposed food security law ignore India’s malnutrition crisis? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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