Children born in India are, on average, shorter than those born in sub-Saharan Africa. Even worse, 255 million Indians remain food insecure, eating less than 2,100 calories daily. Jharkhand reports the lowest per capita calorie intake (1,900 Kcal) in rural areas, while West Bengal hovers similarly (1,851 Kcal) in urban areas. We have attempted to meet this challenge through legislation. Aside from the Right to Food Bill, the landmark PUCL v. Union of India (2001) case has seen over 60 orders over the last decade. And yet, this judicial activism has mostly failed to translate into execution.

The opportunity for India to deliver lies fallow. Three key factors remain to be resolved. The institutional will to execute reforms enabling better food delivery nationally has been mostly missing. India’s lopsided food policy has made cereals more widely available over other foods, while the mismanaged Food Corporation of India leaks our agricultural surplus. Finally, the low social status of women has kept them mostly ill-nourished.

Resolving hunger is not a complex issue. The last 50 years have seen a slew of international action, recognising the right to food, providing state guarantees and institutionalising mechanisms. While South Africa, like India, sought to explicitly guarantee the right to food, millions continue a daily struggle to quell hunger. Brazil on the other hand, with its “Fome Zero” programme, sought to provide three square meals to its people, without any handouts, with cross-party institutional commitment. It consolidated 31 programmes, overseen by its ministry of food security, into a single programme. India offers nine programmes run under five ministries and supported by institutions like the FCI.

A political commitment also requires a system of legal recourse. Brazil allows public prosecutors to take up the violation of human rights, including that of hunger, at the local level. National commissions predominate the landscape of countries such as Venezuela, Uganda and South Africa, acting as oversight bodies with the power to impose penalties. India’s commissioners, appointed by the Supreme Court, still lack statutory powers to impose penalties. In Uganda, the “head of the household” is penalised for non-fulfillment of food obligations within the family. Legislation has led to the creation of centres offering food at subsidised prices, cash transfer schemes, supplementary nutrition etc.

To some extent, India’s states have shown the way. The revival and universalisation of the public distribution scheme (Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh), changes in grain entitlements (Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan) and better service monitoring (Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh) have turned things around. Commissions for fair price shop owners and price reductions have helped increase PDS offtake while lowering incentives to cheat.
India stores over three million tonnes of grain (enough to feed Italy) in the open, exposed to rain and pests, with plastic sheets offering minimal pro-tection. While the food security law entitles 65 per cent of Indians to low-cost grains, the challenge remains in getting the grains to the poor, with wastage and corruption biting away at it. Despite the ongoing revival of the PDS system, beneficiary households are regularly deprived of over 44 per cent of wheat and rice.

FCI stored 68.7 metric tonnes of wheat, rice and coarse grains in 2015, double its requirement of 31.9 mt, and nearly double its capacity of 39 mt (of which 3.3 mt was in the open) — at a cost of Rs 1 lakh crore annually. Its warehouses have not expanded over the last decade and leakages, caused by poor quality wagons, inadequate security, multiple handling etc, can run up to 90 per cent. Only six per cent of farmers benefit from selling rice and wheat directly to the FCI, while a majority of the farmers remain unaware of its procurement activities.
As recommended by the high-level committee in August 2014, the FCI should be encouraged to outsource its stocking operations to the private sector, while following a proactive liquidation policy to offload excess stocks in the market. It should also consider moving out of Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh to states like Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — areas of hunger, discontent and distress sales for farmers.

The FCI was set up in 1965 to meet major shortfalls and stabilise food markets. Given rising food inflation, and increasing volatility in other crops like onions (concentrated in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh), the FCI’s procurement policy must be changed to include the 23 items under the MSP policy, including pulses and oilseeds. Onions, produced in four months, can be stored for the entirety of the political calendar.
Forty per cent of Indian children under the age of five are stunted, while the proportion of “wasted children”, with a low weight for height, remains at 15 per cent. Twenty-eight per cent of Indian children are not breastfed and 70 per cent remain anemic. Despite a per capita GDP of 4.2 per cent between 1990 and 2005, malnutrition amongst children was reduced by just 10 per cent.

We need to pursue “Zero Hunger”, ensuring zero stunted children below two years, by empowering women. A focused effort to identify hungry and malnourished households is needed, particularly in remote and hilly areas, and those with dysfunctional “heads of households”. A reduction in malnutrition, the “hidden hunger”, requires a multi-pronged strategy focusing on improving agricultural productivity, empowering women through maternal and child care practices and offering nutrition education and social protection programmes.

Behavioural changes can be ensued through counseling and supplementation programmes. On paper, India offers such programmes for vitamin A and iron, but there are huge gaps in implementation (consider the shortage in iron syrups for children in most states). Sanitation remains key. Despite a lack of food inadequacy in Rajasthan, malnutrition remains substantial, potentially due to poor sanitation.

A coordinated multi-disciplinary effort can work, as witnessed in Maharashtra where child stunting was reduced by 15 per cent over six years (one of the fastest globally) without PDS reforms. Its nutrition mission, headed by IAS officer V. Ramani, developed better protocols for treating the acutely malnourished and ensured better coordination between the nutrition and healthcare departments.

This battle against hunger and malnutrition will have to be a decadal one, with a multi-pronged approach and long term political commitment. The government should seek to encourage states and local bodies to try out different policy reforms, according to their local needs, institutional culture and tastes, with the Centre seeking to evaluate state and district level outcomes on a regular basis. Without such step-changes in execution, India will remain an enfeebled basket case.