The 'Green Revolution' of the 1960s and 70s brought a boost to India's food grain production, and pride in having achieved 'self-sufficiency'. Despite this, the country's malnutrition crisis continues to deepen - statistics reveal that more than half of Indian children under four years of age face a debilitating future because of malnutrition. Over 60 per cent of Indian women, irrespective of class, are anaemic. In 50 per cent of the 2.1 million annual deaths of children under five years of age, the underlying cause is malnutrition.

Why have we gone so wrong? And are we any closer to understanding what needs to be done?

A number of recently released reports further raise concern over high and volatile food prices that threaten India's already "alarming" food security situation. They warn that this situation could have severe consequences on the nutrition status of children below age five; poor consumers and small farmers, as also the country's overall health and economic indices.

Examining the reasons for hunger and malnutrition in India, these reports, as also a recent national consultation of Indian public health experts organised by the Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation, highlight two key issues:

The first is the failure of Indian agriculture policy, which has moved away from supporting the production of food crops to promoting cash crops. This is simultaneous to support for a food industry that is selling micro-nutrients through laboratory produced fortification and packaging of food. Second is the absence of strong government commitment to implementing basic social protection measures for small farmers and poor consumers.

The World Food Insecurity Report, 2011, produced by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO); the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and World Food Programme (WFP) warns that increasing food prices will impact income and lead to decreasing food consumption. This can reduce key nutrient intake by children during the first 1000 days of life from conception. It can also lead to a permanent reduction of their future learning capacity and an increased likelihood of future poverty, with negative impact on the entire economy, the report states.

Following immediately thereafter, the release of another report, Global Hunger Index, 2011 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), states that India's food security situation is "alarming". It ranks India lower than Rwanda; 67th out of 81 countries of the world with the worst food security status. Pakistan, Nepal, Rwanda and Sudan all did better than India, while Bangladesh, Haiti and Democratic Republic of Congo were among the countries that did the worst.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI), according to the IFPRI, is composed of three equally weighted indicators - the proportion of the population that is undernourished, the proportion of children who are underweight, and under-five mortality. India in the last ten years is among the countries with the least improvement, the report states. The country has however been moved from an "extremely alarming" situation - the worst ranking given by IFPRI - to merely "alarming". In contrast China, Iran and Brazil are among the countries lauded for having halved their GHI scores over the last decade.

Subsidies, irrigation and investments were made liberally available for certain crops like cotton or sugarcane, leading to diversification towards cash crops and lower food production.

 •  The way we used to eat
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Experts say Indian agriculture's shift from local food self-sufficiency towards cash crops for bio-fuels, genetically modified cotton, soya, sugarcane, for instance, has made it vulnerable to price fluctuation and the vagaries of the international markets, quite apart from the long-term environmental consequences to the soil and biodiversity of crops. There has been little support for increased development of horticulture or vegetable kitchen gardens, products that are vital to a balanced nutrition plate, which the domestic market wants but cannot afford, because prices have hit the roof.

Cultivation of soya, as a replacement for rice, is not widely accepted and of controversial nutrition value. Biologist, Dr. Debal Deb, founder of Vrihi, a rice seed bank in Bengal asks why locally loved traditional foods like ragi, jawar, bajra or the thousands of varieties of indigenous rice are not promoted instead. All of these, when grown through ecological methods, are locally self sustainable, requiring zero agro chemicals or irrigation, leaving no ecological footprint. These varieties are disappearing with the entry of genetically modified seeds, promoted by US corporations like Monsanto, he points out.

Small farmers are unable to practise viable farming due to factors such as the absence of knowledge related to sustainable farming technology; lack of infrastructure such as storage, transport, roads; access to indigenous seeds and markets, Dr. Deb says.

Since the 1990s when India launched the process of economic reforms (known as 'Structural Adjustment Programme' or SAP), the government has sought to withdraw agriculture subsidies and reduce the number of people receiving subsidised food support. This intention is evident for instance, in the imposition of targets on who accesses the Public Distribution System, leaving out thousands of genuinely poor people, says SATHI (Support for Advocacy and Training to Health Initiatives) in its 2009 report on the nutritional crisis in Maharashtra. Meanwhile, corporations are clamouring to supply fortified, supplementary and packaged food through the national food programmes.

India's development policies are increasingly focused on exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, forests and rivers on an industrial scale. This form of 'development' is pushing communities into poverty, turning them into ecological refugees and urban migrants who are vulnerable to malnutrition. 'Development projects' in at least four Indian states have displaced at least 1.6 million people, says the Action Aid Report, 2010. While other developing countries have quickly learnt the right lessons and rectified their policy failings, India, according to the report, has yet to comprehend the fallacy of its current development model. It urgently needs to draw from the experiences of other Southern Hemisphere countries that are demonstrating success.

The success stories

Brazil, according to the Action Aid Report, tops as the State that has both resources and political will to tackle hunger. It has introduced food banks, community kitchens and locally procured school meals, along with simultaneous support for small holder family farmers and land reform settlers. The result: child malnutrition has fallen by 73 per cent and child deaths by 45 per cent.

China holds second place, by heavily investing in its poor farmers and a relatively equitable distribution of land. The number of under-nourished people was reduced by 58 million between 1990 and 2001. Now less than one per cent of the population goes hungry, the report says. Ghana, Vietnam and Malawi follow in the list of success models.

The key issue in all these success stories, according to the report, is rejection of the conventional wisdom of the free market era. These countries showed clear action in ending hunger through strong State leadership to invest in small holders who grow the majority of food in developing countries; expand social protection; make adequate food an enforceable right. While these countries have invested in commercial agriculture for export, they have maintained or introduced specific policies to ensure that production of staple foods for domestic markets continue to thrive.

Learning from Africa

When India launched into its SAP, it failed to learn from the mistakes of Africa - which had undergone this reform process a decade earlier. The African experience highlights the loss of local nutrition security and national food sovereignty.

Africa was once a net food exporter. In the last three decades, SAP, imposed by international financial institutions, pressurised African countries to roll back institutional support to agriculture and social sectors like health and education. According to the Action Aid Report, these countries dismantled marketing boards, abolished guaranteed prices for farmers; down-sized agriculture extension services and removed subsidies on fertilisers. National budgets for the social sectors saw a drastic reduction. Trade liberalisation further deepened dependence on food imports and vulnerability to global price volatility.

In 2007 even the World Bank, the main architect of these reforms, implicitly admitted the failure of these policies. Despite this, it continues to support international trade agreements that force poor countries to slash agriculture tariffs. Today tariffs are so low that American and European farmers are able to flood the markets with their subsidised produce, or send it to developing countries as food aid. Produce support to farmers in developed countries is 30 times the amount provided in agriculture aid to developing countries. Today Africa imports 25 per cent of its food, with almost every country having become a net food importer.

The recent IFPRI report meanwhile notes that growing dependence on just a few countries for food imports has lately seen a lower level of grain reserves on account of three factors: an increased use of food crops for bio-fuels; extreme weather conditions and climate change; increased volume of trading in commodity futures markets. This is leading to price volatility in the global food markets. Lack of timely information about world food systems is resulting in overreaction to moderate shifts in supply and demand, it states.

Linking agriculture and nutrition security

Given this global scenario, India needs to put in place sensible agriculture policies that ensure local food self-sufficiency and meet the nutrition needs of communities. Access to nutritious food ensures across-the-board health and prevention of a range of diseases. No amount of medicines or vaccines can work on the malnourished if they do not have simultaneous access to nourishing food. To meet the demand for fruits and vegetables India will need to reconsider its agriculture policies that promote cash crops and its development model that has long ignored the plight of small and marginal farmers.

This linkage between agriculture and nutrition, and its impact on health and economic indices is very clear in a state like Maharashtra, says health researcher, Ravi Duggal. The State's data is valid for many other Indian states as well, he adds. The Maharashtra Economic Surveys, for instance, amply communicate how right through the nineties and in the new millennium, food production and per capita availability has declined due to the agriculture policies being pursued, he says.

For instance subsidies, irrigation and investments were made liberally available for certain crops like cotton or sugarcane, leading to diversification towards cash crops and lower food production in the state. Consequently, many agrarian families were forced to use cash to buy food (in the last couple of years with double digit food inflation). Lacking enough cash because agriculture does not generate much surplus, families in the bottom half of the population were trapped in a cycle where they could not meet their nutritional needs.

This situation was further complicated with rural debt and farmer suicides (where Maharashtra leads). In this chain the collapsed Employment Guarantee Scheme in Maharashtra (EGS), especially post-1998, caused a further casualty for nutrition. Cash incomes which came in handy during lean months were no longer available. This linkage was clearly seen in districts like Nandurbar and Yavatmal, in studies done by Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT), Mr. Duggal says.

To put nutritious food back into the plates of our people, India will need to rethink its current development model where a section of the population 'grows' at the cost of another large section which is 'stunted' and whose income and food intake remain compressed. Malnutrition is not a residue of development. It is a structural product of the present model of growth", says Abhay Shukla, coordinator of SATHI.

Will our development be the Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana kind of growth model - which is taking away land from small farmers for the benefit of the real estate corporations - while demonstrating some of the worst malnutrition indices in the country, he asks. People who already live in a subsistence economy are in dire straits if their land is taken away from them. They are left with no means to combat malnutrition.

"Malnutrition is centrally linked to our development policies", Dr. Shukla stresses. "High growth rates or high average per capita income does not automatically translate into better nutrition indices for the entire population. There is something deeply wrong in the current model of development that is promoting urbanisation and industrial growth through cheap labour. It is on this account that all our prescriptions to counter malnutrition are going way off the mark", he says.