Fighting malnutrition in India

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 September, 2013, 10:08am

Last month, on the day a new food security scheme was launched in India's capital New Delhi, Shivani Khujur had a broad smile of relief on her face.

For Khujur, a maid married to a driver, it meant that her four children - a fifth is on the way - would not have to go hungry.

Food prices are unbelievable. I can't afford to buy onions any more
Iranti Bihor

Under the landmark National Food Security Bill, India's 1.2 billion citizens have a legal right to food. Some 800 million people will get subsidised wheat, rice and cereals through the US$20 billion scheme aimed at cutting malnutrition and easing poverty.

The bill was sent in mid-August by India's parliament to the president for approval.

Every eligible person will be able to procure five kilograms of rice, wheat, and coarse grains per month at a very low price - between 1 rupee (12 HK cents) and 3 rupees per kilogram.

"As long as I can get rice and wheat, I can feed my children, even though I can't afford to give them vegetables very often. At these prices, it's basically free," says Khujur.

She'll also gain from the bill's maternity benefits, which guarantees all lactating and pregnant women 6,000 rupees per pregnancy - a sign that the government recognises the importance of breastfeeding and the right to food for infants less than six months old.

Despite rapid economic growth, many of India's citizens still suffer from poor health. Malnutrition is more common in India than in Sub-Saharan Africa. India ranked 65 out of 79 countries on the 2012 Global Hunger Index by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Indian government figures show that 48 per cent of children younger than five years old are small for their age, indicating that half the country's children are chronically malnourished. About 50 per cent of all childhood deaths are attributed to malnutrition. The bill will cover almost two-thirds of India's population - 75 per cent of those in rural areas and 50 per cent in the cities.

Supporters of the scheme welcome the fact that the right to food has become a political issue. "Making access to certain basic foods a legal entitlement is a great leap towards tackling hunger. It's a chance we cannot miss," says the Right to Food Campaign, an informal organisation of NGOs.

All this sounds good in theory. However, some experts are sceptical that the new bill will fulfil its promise.

It is widely seen as a populist move by a government desperate to retain power. The project was launched amid much self-congratulation by the ruling Congress Party, which is banking on the scheme to guarantee a victory in next year's general election. Full-page ads in newspapers displayed cascading wheat and rice and wholesome looking families beaming with satisfaction.

Critics say that, under the current government-owned Public Distribution System, about 400 million Indians who are already meant to receive subsidised grain (though not as cheaply as under the new scheme) never get it because 40 per cent of it - according to the government's own statistics - is siphoned off due to corruption.

Much of what remains is wasted because the distribution system is so inefficient. Mountains of wheat and rice go rotten every year. How, ask critics, will this scheme be any different?

Two other important aspects - safe drinking water and sanitation - are not tackled by the bill. Lack of clean water is a big cause of malnutrition because of the gastro-intestinal diseases it causes.

"Malnutrition needs to be tackled by adding vitamins and minerals to this cheap grain. But in any case, the government needs to address other basic causes of malnutrition, such as poor water supply, sanitation, and public health education," says Harminder Verma, development economist at Punjab University.

Iranti and Amit Bihor seem like perfect beneficiaries of the scheme. The couple, with two young children, arrived in the Indian capital a few months ago to escape the poverty of their village in the forests of Jharkhand where farming is difficult because of a lack of water. No other jobs are available because the nearest town is an eight-hour bus ride away.

Having rented a hovel to house his family in Jasola, New Delhi, Amit now works as a cook in a guest house. Iranti is waiting to hear if she has a job at the nearby Apollo Hospital as a bed assistant, someone who wheels patients from one room to another.

The family manages to stave off hunger, but only just. "Food prices are unbelievable. I can't afford to buy onions any more. The cheapest rice I can buy is 22 rupees a kilo," says Iranti.

Her face lights up when told about the new scheme, but drops when she hears you must have the Below the Poverty Line card to be eligible.

She says: "When we applied, the government official demanded 10,000 rupees as a bribe. We didn't have the money."