With low and uncertain incomes, families dependent on the informal economy do not have assured access to adequate and nutritious food. The pandemic has only aggravated this longstanding problem.
India was home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world even before the Covid-19 pandemic. The latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, released jointly by five UN organisations in July, reveals that the pandemic and failure on the part of state to combat its effects, has led to a significant increase in the prevalence of hunger and food insecurity in the country.
According to the data presented in the report, the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in India rose by about 6.8 percentage points in 2018-20. In absolute terms, the number of persons facing moderate to severe food insecurity has increased by about 9.7 crore since the outbreak of Covid. The irony is that this happened when the government had an unprecedented 100 million tonnes of food grains in its godowns — larger than the food stocks of any country. The country with the largest stock of grain in the world — 120 million tonnes as of July 1, 2021 — accounts for a quarter of the world’s food-insecure population. Estimates show that, in 2020, over 237 crore people were grappling with food insecurity globally, an increase of about 32 crore from 2019. South Asia alone accounts for 36 per cent of global food insecurity.
Estimates on food insecurity presented in the SOFI report are based on two globally-accepted indicators of food insecurity: The Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU), which estimates the proportion of people suffering from chronic deficiency of calories, and a more recently developed experience-based indicator called the Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Insecurity (PMSFI).
The PoU estimates are based on estimates of per-capita supply of food and distributional parameters estimated using the national consumption surveys. However, since data from consumption surveys are not available every year, these are updated only once in a few years. In the interim, PoU merely captures changes in the average per-capita food supply and is not sensitive enough to adequately capture recent disruptions such as those caused by the pandemic. Since the overall food supply has been somewhat resilient despite the pandemic and consumption surveys have not been conducted by most countries including India, the increase in prevalence of hunger captured by PoU — from 14 per cent in 2019 to 15.3 per cent in 2020 for India — is likely to be an underestimate.
On the other hand, PMSFI estimates are based on data collected through surveys that attempt to capture people’s experiences of food insecurity (such as eating less, modifying diet to eat cheaper food, skipping meals, and eating less than adequate food because of lack of money or other resources). FAO commissions Gallup to collect data on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), based on which PMSFI is estimated. Unlike the national consumption surveys, the Gallup World Poll, an annual worldwide survey, was conducted in 2020-21 as well.
The PMSFI estimates presented in the report are particularly important because, since the outbreak of the pandemic, the Indian government has not undertaken any official assessment of food insecurity in the country. In this situation, based on a nationally-representative survey, the PMFSI estimates are the only national-level valid and reliable estimates available on the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity in India. The latest round of surveys, on which PMSFI estimates are based, were conducted from the beginning of the year 2020 up to early 2021, thus allowing for a thorough assessment of the impact of pandemic on people’s food security.
It may also be mentioned that not only has the government not conducted its own consumption or food security surveys, it does not approve the publication of results based on the Gallup World Poll. As a result, estimates for India are not published in the SOFI reports. However, these can still be obtained indirectly because the data are presented for South Asia and for “South Asia (excluding India)”. Estimates for India can be obtained by comparing the two sets of data.
PMSFI estimates thus derived show that there were about 43 crore of moderate to severe food-insecure people in India in 2019. As a result of the pandemic-related disruptions, this increased to 52 crore in one year. In terms of prevalence rates, moderate to severe food insecurity increased from about 31.6 per cent in 2019 to 38.4 per cent in 2021.
Despite being self-sufficient in the production of major food commodities, problems of hunger and food insecurity are grave in India because of widespread economic distress, high unemployment and high levels of inequality. A large proportion of the poor is dependent on the informal economy in which incomes are too low and uncertain. Unemployment rates have risen sharply over the last few years. High (and fluctuating) food prices, shrinking public investment and the economic slowdown have compounded the distress among working classes and the peasantry. With low and uncertain incomes, families dependent on the informal economy do not have assured access to adequate and nutritious food. These longstanding problems were aggravated last year because of lack of preparation to deal with the pandemic.
The sharp increase in food insecurity points to an urgent need for the government to establish systems for regular monitoring of the food security situation in the country and to universalise access to the public distribution system, at least during the pandemic. Everyone, irrespective of whether they have a ration card or not, should be allowed to take subsidised grain from ration shops. With almost 120 million tonnes of grain currently lying with the government, it requires almost no additional resources.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 6, 2021 under the title ‘State of food insecurity’. The writer is a research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, JNU.
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