Food, Hunger, and Nutrition in India: A Case of Redistributive Failure

Executive Summary

Over the past 50 years, India has been a pioneer in discussing and introducing policies toward the alleviation of hunger and poverty. India’s performance record is somewhere between good and excellent in terms of achievement of goals; unfortunately, the specific policy instruments used by the government have suffered from inefficiency and corruption.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that Indian anti-poverty and anti-hunger policies have not been based on evidence. If hunger is defined as the consumption of two square meals per day, then post-2000, hunger is confined to less than 2 percent of the Indian population. The number is believed to be so low that the household survey authorities (the National Sample Survey Office, or NSS) have stopped asking the question pertaining to hunger.

Since 2000, the government of India has enacted two very large-scale hunger alleviation programs through acts of parliament: the provision of employment (NREGA) to the rural poor (2005) and the provision of heavily subsidized food to two-thirds of the Indian population, the National Food Security Act of 2013.

Earlier variants of these two policies have been in operation in India since the mid-1970s, though neither has been successful in reducing either perceived hunger or poverty. If the target is reaching the poor, then both programs fail: less than 15 percent of the poor population receives the benefits of programs launched in their name.

There is considerable evidence of large-scale corruption in both these flagship programs of reducing poverty and hunger and malnutrition. One reasonable conclusion is that these programs do not offer any guidance to other countries wanting to eliminate hunger. Or, phrased differently, these programs vividly illustrate the potential, and reality, of corruption in government schemes set up in the name of the poor.

It has been consistently argued, by academics and government policymakers, that India needs government food and nutrition programs because nutrition data—not calories but wasting and stunting in children below the age of 5—consistently show that Indian children display the worst record even though India is considerably less poor than sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, the government and scholars argue, the goal should be to increase the provision of food to eliminate the scourge of malnutrition.

Unfortunately, this policy prescription suffers from a severe identification problem. Stunting and wasting in India has little to do with lack of food, or with consumption of calories. The reality is that more food does not lead to greater consumption or nutrition.

India suffered for many years from a mistaken belief, and policy prescription, that calorie consumption should be incentivized via heavy subsidy of food grains (rice and wheat). While this policy may have been true 50 years ago when calorie undernourishment was a major problem, it certainly is not true today. Indeed, the evidence suggests that food grains are an inferior good; that is, their consumption declines as incomes increase. What is needed to solve today’s problem of malnutrition is to switch diets away from food grains and to deal with the practice of open defecation.

(Submitted to the Brookings Institution’s Ending Rural Hunger Project in 2016)

author bio

  • Surjit S. Bhalla | He is contributing editor, The Indian Express and consultant, Network 18. FULL BIO

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