No. 42, December 2006

No. 42
(December 2006):

Counter-Revolution in Military Affairs?

Wheat Imports – A Tool for Re-shaping India’s Agriculture
I. India – Global Leader in Malnutrition

As part of their effort to dismantle the food procurement and public distribution system, the country’s rulers are playing down the extent of malnutrition in India, and thus playing down the need for cereal production. Briefly,2 we should note that the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN)’s normative cereals requirement is 157 kg per capita per year, whereas the National Sample Survey of January-June 2004 shows a rural consumption of 149 kg per capita and an all-India consumption of 142 kg per capita. These are averages: thus vast numbers are consuming far less than the minimum requirement. Moreover, as the Committee on Long Term Grain Policy (CLTGP) notes, “NIN norms assume a more varied diet than is actually consumed in India at present, and therefore the norm for cereals may be on the lower side.”

This concern is borne out in nutritional outcomes, as depicted in the following tables. The proportion of children in India who are underweight (low weight for age, indicating both chronic and acute malnutrition), stunting (low height for age, indicating chronic malnutrition) and wasting (low weight for height, indicating acute malnutrition in the period before the survey) is among the worst in the third world. 

Table 1: India: Percentage of children under three, by different measures of malnutrition

  mild moderate severe
Underweight 73 47 18
Stunting 68 45 23
Wasting 46 15 3

Source: National Family Health Survey, 1998

Table 2:Underweight, stunting and wasting, by global region, 2000
% of under-fives suffering from

  underweight stunting wasting
Latin. Am. & Caribbean 6 14 2
Africa 24 35 8
Asia 28 30 9
India 47 45 16
All developing countries 22-27 28-32 7-9

Source: United Nations, 2004. Fifth Report on the World Nutrition Situation:Nutrition for Improved Development Outcomes; cited in India’s Undernourished Children: A Call for Reform and Action, Michele Gragnolati, Meera Shekar, Monica Das Gupta, Caryn Bredenkamp and Yi-Kyoung Lee, August 2005, World Bank

Little wonder the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, raised the alarm to the UN Human Rights Council in a September 2006 report titled “The Extent of Chronic Hunger and Malnutrition in India”. Ziegler says his report was “motivated by the fact that India has the largest number of undernourished people in the world and one of the highest levels of child malnutrition”.

Preliminary state-wise results of the latest National Family Health Survey (2005-06) show only slight improvement in the above state of affairs; indeed, certain indicators show a deterioration. (Results from certain states, such as Bihar and Jharkhand, are not yet available.) This despite the fact that the economy was experiencing a much-celebrated “boom” that year.

Table 3: Preliminary results of NFHS-3 (2005-06), select states:
Children under three suffering from

  underweight stunting wasting
Andhra Pradesh 37 34 13
Chhattisgarh 52 45 18
Gujarat 47 42 17
Haryana 42 36 17
Karnataka 41 38 18
Kerala 29 21 16
Maharashtra 40 38 15
Madhya Pradesh 60 40 33
Orissa 44 38 19
Punjab 27 28 9
Rajasthan 44 34 20
Tamil Nadu 33 25 22
Uttaranchal 38 32 16
Uttar Pradesh 47 46 14
West Bengal 44 33 19

Source: National Family Health Survey, 2005-06; the above figures refer to moderate to severe underweight, stunting and wasting.

Cereals (such as wheat and rice) play a critical role in India’s overall food security, accounting for 58-65 per cent of total calories and proteins consumed in 1999-2000. It is unlikely that the calorie share of cereals will reduce below 50 per cent by 2020. They will remain particularly important for the poor, accounting for 70 per cent of their nutrient intake.3

Protein and energy deficiencies cast a pall on the entire future of India’s children and even the future of generations to come. Children who are underweight or stunted face a greater risk of illness or mortality, poor physical and mental development, poor school performance and reduced adult size and capacity for work. Protein-energy malnutrition weakens immune response and aggravates the effects of infection, exposing children to more severe bouts of diarrhea and a higher risk of pneumonia. Underweight and stunted women are at greater risk of obstetric complications (because of smaller pelvic size) and low birth weight deliveries. Low birth weight infants tend as adults to remain shorter than those of normal birth weight; the result is a cycle of malnutrition carried over to the next generation.4

It is a different matter that the very sections who are malnourished are the ones who perform strenuous manual labour, and gain the kinds of knowledge and capability that the over-nourished never will achieve. But that is the product of their grim struggle to survive and better their conditions – individually and collectively.

It is against the background of this large-scale malnutrition that we must look at the recent developments in the foodgrains sector.


2. We have discussed this in detail in Aspects no.s 36 & 37, pp. 117-151. (back)

3. CLTGP, Report on Long Term Grain Policy, p. 15. (back)

4. India’s Undernourished Children: A Call for Reform and Action, Michele Gragnolati, Meera Shekar, Monica Das Gupta, Caryn Bredenkamp and Yi-Kyoung Lee, World Bank, 2005, p. 6. (back)

NEXT: How the Wheat Crisis of 2006 Was Created


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