A case for a diversified food basket

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 25 reviewed the steps taken by the government to reduce undernutrition. The officials laid emphasis on several social schemes that are helping to create awareness about Nutrition. But one big programme that can play a key role in this direction is the National Food Security Act (NFSA).


Since its inception in 2013, NFSA has made significant changes like digitalisation of procurement processes to reduce inefficiencies in distribution and procurements; pilots have been undertaken to test the implementation of direct cash transfer implementation. Recently, the government has made it mandatory for the beneficiaries under the NFSA to use the Aadhaar card as the identification document. All these steps are important to strengthen the delivery mechanism by bringing in better transparency and efficiency.


But besides the ongoing changes on the operational issues, there are certain other important aspects of the NFSA that also needs governments attention. One of that is the central goal of the Act, which is to remove hunger and reduce malnutrition in a human life cycle approach. The overall layout of the programme is such that it caters to the population to meet their hunger needs and is still largely focused on staples like rice and wheat. The Act still does not address the nutritional aspect, except for some recent pilots focusing on meeting nutritional deficiency by bringing in fortified wheat flour, pulses and coarse cereals in selected locations.


The demand for diversified food is rising both from the middle and the higher income groups. National Sample Survey (NSS) statistics do show that the total calorie consumption and number of food groups that people are consuming is increasing in the food basket with increase in incomes, but the main calorie component is still concentrated in cereals. For the poor, diet diversification is important from the nutritional stand point even if they do not demand much due to constraints like accessibility, affordability. The NFSA gives an opportunity for this group of population.


AGAINST THE GRAIN The number of food groups that people consume increases in the food basket with an increase in income, but the main calorie component still comes from cereals in India
A three-pronged approach can make NFSA nutrition inclusive. First, diversification of the PDS food basket. Ensuring access to pulses and micronutrient rich vegetables and fruits through the PDS offers one way to address the triple burden of malnutrition in India. Second, decentralisation of the procurement system, as it will provide the flexibility to states to customise the food basket as per local demand. It will provide an impetus to local farmers to match their production decisions to local conditions and demand. Such a decentralised procurement policy needs to be taken up by the states. This will help in developing strategies for procurement of locally demanded non-staple foods grains like coarse grains and pulses. Three, incentivise diversification of production and consumption through cash transfers, in contrast to the present system of physical transfer of foods through the PDS. Direct benefit transfer (DBT), especially through cash transfers, can increase the purchasing power of the consumer without tying that increase to a set of crops. This gives consumers the elasticity to diversify their consumption to maximise nutrient intake based on their needs. Similarly, providing cash to farmers instead of subsidies can increase the propensity of farmers to take risks and shift their production pattern according to market signals. While the cash transfer programme has been piloted in Chandigarh, Puducherry and Dadra & Nagar Haveli and this forms about 3 per cent of the total programme, it is proposed to be scaled up.


We recognise that there are challenges to these approaches as well. There is difficulty in engaging states and the fiscal cost of incorporating more products to the procurement basket is high. Institutional mechanisms to procure and infrastructure to store pulses and semi-perishables is inadequate. There are market risks and uncertainties. For instance, if the production of a nutrient-dense food is low relative to demand, then excess demand would drive up the prices in the open market, resulting in decreased consumption of that item and presumably have a detrimental effect on nutritional status.


To address some of these challenges, at the policy level, the budget 2017 provides provision for buffer stocking for pulses and policy interventions have been initiated to bring pulses at a level of cereals. On the one hand, when government procurement drive of pulses is initiated, it might also be a good idea to link this procurement with the welfare programmes like ICDS, MDM and PDS as an outlet to the procurement. This will help in meeting the dual objective of incentivising farmers to produce more pulses and thus provide them markets for their produce. It will also help in strengthening the nutritional status of the population under NFSA.


Malnutrition is rampant among children of less than five years of age. Better access to micro-nutrient rich food helps to reduce the incidences of the double burden of nutrition — both undernourishment and obesity. ICDS is one of such programme under the ambit of NFSA that can help to tackle the nutritional requirement of children less than six years old, if different nutritional food items besides cereals can be added to it.


The overall experience is limited but it is important to start exploring the possibility to create a balanced food system. The author is an agricultural economist and currently non-resident fellow at TARINA-Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, Cornell University. Views are personal

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