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Prasoon S Majumdar
Editor, Economic Affairs - The Sunday Indian
Dean Academics (All India), The Indian Institute of Planning and Management

Pulses for the right pulse!

It's not just food security...

Recently, the government at the Centre has been highly active in rolling out the Food Security Bill. In fact, the Supreme Court also seems to have directed to mobilise the food grains which are stocked in the godowns, to be distributed free of cost amongst the poor. No doubt, food security is an imperative for any working civilised nation, but then in our single-minded focus to provide food security (where we are currently ranked at 65th position, out of 84 countries, below countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe in the Global Hunger Index 2009), the more pertinent issue of nutrition is getting hugely neglected. Had it not been the case, how does one justify that India has more than 45 per cent of children under the age of three as underweight and similar numbers with stunted growth!

According to a study released in September 2010, one out of two Indian kids is malnourished. And it is no news that malnourishment not just affects both physical appearance and a mental function of an individual, but also makes one susceptible to various infections and diseases. This deficiency of micronutrient can be observed across the nation - around three-fourth of the children in India suffer from iron deficiency, half of them from Vitamin A and iodine deficiency. In fact, the impact of malnutrition is not just on individual health but has huge ramifications for the nation as a whole. Two years back, a study found out that a very high level of malnutrition has a negative impact on the country's economic growth and in the case of India, it has led to a four per cent loss of GDP. And the bigger predicament is that the ongoing plans and initiatives are completely off target as there is no provision for influx of major nutritive cereals. With decrease in per capita consumption of cereals, the incidence of malnutrition is seeing a surge.

The root of the problem is in the manner in which food grains are distributed. Since free or subsidised distribution of food grains through Public Distribution System, commonly known as PDS, fulfils more of populist propaganda of the political class than actually focusing on food security, no wonder even the Economic Survey of 2008-09 goes on to state that the “Eleventh Five Year Plan has observed that PDS seems to have failed in making food grains available to the poor, as is evident from falling levels of cereal consumption over the last two decades”. In addition to this, our policy makers have always pushed wheat and rice through PDS and four other essential commodities but no pulses which by far a major source of nutrition. There has been practically no initiative to include cereals like bajra, ragi, maize, soya and others through PDS. Not only had this disincentivised the farmers to grow other cereals apart from wheat and rice, but had also kept the health benefits of such cereals away from people. So much so that most of the cereals (especially maize) are today used as chicken feed. And this happens simply because they are made to sound inferior by terming them as coarse cereals, and that’s all the more reason that these nutritious pulses are getting used as animal and bird fodder. The naming of bengal gram and red gram (rich in proteins, carbohydrates, calcium, zinc, amino acids, lysine to name a few), as chick pea and pigeon pea reduces its acceptability.

All in all, PDS is a gigantic failure in itself and it has created far more food insecurities than it would have otherwise. But for the lack of available options, if our policy makers have to still depend on the PDS, then it is pertinent for them to focus on nutrition security and not just food security!


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