EditorialSanctum

In rural India, less to eat than 40 years ago

As India’s 70th year of Independence begins, widespread progress is evident, but in rural India, where 833m live, people are consuming fewer nutrients than are required to stay healthy, according to a National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) survey.

On an average, compared to 1975-1979, a rural Indian now consumes 550 fewer calories — and 13 gm protein, 5 mg iron, 250 mg calcium and about 500 mg vitamin A lesser than they used to.

Children below the age of three are consuming, on an average, 80 ml of milk per day instead of the 300 ml they require. These data explain, in part, why in the same survey, 35 per cent of rural men and women were found to be undernourished, and 42 per cent of children were underweight.

Almost half the 500 mothers surveyed had not eaten pulses the previous day, a third had not eaten vegetables and almost none had eaten any fruit, egg or meat. As a result, half of all mothers and their children under three in these areas were undernourished.

These data have implications for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make-in-India and Skill-India programmes for growth.

“The consequences of child undernutrition for morbidity and mortality are enormous — and there is, in addition, an appreciable impact of undernutrition on productivity so that a failure to invest in combating nutrition reduces potential economic growth,” a 2015 World Bank report noted.

Despite higher economic growth, malnutrition levels are almost twice as high in South Asia as compared to Sub-Saharan Africa, V. Ramalingasami and Urban Johnson wrote in a seminal 1997 paper, titled Malnutrition: An Asian Enigma. While the lower status of women in South Asia was offered as an explanation, almost two decades later, rural Indians just do not seem to have enough food. 

India’s economy has been growing consistently since the early 1990s. The country has survived the recessions that started in US in 2008 and affected large parts of the world. What is not as well known is that over the same period, more and more people in rural India were eating less and less. 

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