Much attention paid to the pandemic’s harm may have been focused on economic growth, but a far more serious challenge that India is likely to face relates to hunger and malnutrition. While concrete nationally-representative data is unlikely to be available soon, several privately-conducted surveys after covid suggest that the situation is far worse than thought.
Data on consumption expenditure and malnutrition also point to a reversal of earlier gains made against malnutrition and hunger. Unlike economic growth, which is likely to rebound to a respectable annual rate of 6-7%, the long-term impact of India’s retrogression on those two indicators can prove severe enough to affect other human development outcomes.
Data from the 5th round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) under the aegis of the ministry of health and family welfare are now available for 17 states and five union territories (UTs). The NFHS-5 for 2019-20 shows a deterioration on several indicators of child malnutrition over the NFHS-4 for 2015-16 .
In states where there has been progress, its rate has been slower than between 2004-2016. Of 22 states/Union territories (UTs), 13 have seen an increase in childhood stunting between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5. Wasting has increased in 12 of those 22, and the count of those underweight has gone up in 16 of them.
Except for Andhra Pradesh and Sikkim, all states have seen at least one indicator of child malnutrition worsen between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The phase 1 fact sheets are mainly for UTs, northeastern states and some major states, with data for states with a high prevalence of malnutrition yet to be reported. It will be important to watch out for states such as Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where malnutrition rates are quite high.
These data-sets are a cause for alarm, even though there are improvements in institutional delivery, immunization and other indicators. That they pertain to the period before the pandemic are another reason for worry. It’s evident that the economy’s slowdown and income decline among low earners had contributed to the worsening of these indicators.
The pandemic has made matters worse, with a further hit to the economy and a decline in wages and incomes. As recent data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) confirms the trend of rising unemployment and declining incomes, India’s already-fragile nutritional situation is expected to worsen further. Mid-day meals in primary and upper primary schools, along with anganwadis, have played an important role in monitoring and supplementing efforts to reduce malnutrition through free food for children (and pregnant as well as lactating women). This programme has been suspended for almost a year now, depriving the most vulnerable of access to food.
Several surveys after the lockdown have confirmed an increase in hunger and decline in food intake. Almost two-thirds of all respondent households of The Hunger Watch survey by the Right to Food campaign across 11 Indian states reported declines in the quality and quantity of food consumed.
About 45% of households reported an increase in the need to borrow for food and one-third reported skipping meals or going hungry. These estimates are similar to the results of a livelihood survey by Azim Premji University, which reported 77% of respondents having suffered a decline in food consumption. Other surveys also confirm a rise in job losses, decline in incomes, and reduced food consumption after the covid pandemic struck the country.
Over the past two years, the Union government has had foodgrain stocks far higher than the levels mandated by India’s buffer norms. As on 1 January, its foodgrain pile was at 80 million tonnes, as against our buffer norm of 21.4 million tonnes. Holding excess food stocks in spite of rising hunger and malnutrition is not just a waste of national resources, it is tragic. To offer the vulnerable succour, India should extend its scheme of additional foodgrain hand-outs and make it universally accessible. With no sign of a rural recovery visible yet in wage or income data, hunger and malnutrition are set to worsen in the absence of state support. Economic growth will revive sooner rather than later. But the scars of hunger and malnutrition could last much longer.