In the face of higher food prices, the subpar allocation in the 2020 Union budget for midday meal, PDS and ICDS projects are likely to worsen the health of families already on society’s margins.

For a year now, food prices have been increasing rapidly. This trend could lead to a sharp increase in malnutrition among children in India, especially those from the most marginalised families.

A large proportion of children in India are malnourished; in fact, child malnutrition in India is higher than in most countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. And even though the extent of undernutrition and stunting has decreased over the last decade or so, severe wasting – which carries the highest risk of mortality – didn’t change significantly between 2005-2006 and 2015-16, the two years in which National Family Health Survey was conducted.

Food and nutrient intake has been declining in rural India, and has been quite inadequate for optimal growth and development for some time now.

In the first decade and a half of the millennium, food inflation increased steadily in India, peaking at 14.72% in November 2013, then reaching a low of negative 2.24% in January 2019. Since then, food inflation has been rising again and was 14.12% as of January 2020.

In general, food prices have been climbing faster than the prices of other commodities. So even when one’s income rises enough to offset retail inflation (although not for the vast majority of people working in the informal sector), a family will still be able to afford less and less food every year.

Further, the price of nutritional food items in India has been increasing faster than the price of a typical food basket, with the gap only widening over time. So without an increase in incomes, families become less able to buy and eat nutritious food.

Poorer people spend a higher proportion of their income on food and have a lower capacity to adapt to price rise. As a result, it is not surprising that food inflation and child malnutrition levels are closely related.

For example, a study published in August 2015 reported evidence that food inflation was strongly linked to a 10% increase among 1,918 children in wasting between 2006 and 2009. Another group of scientists concluded, based on a study in Mozambique, that the very high food inflation in the country in 2008 and 2009 was responsible for 39,000 more moderately underweight and 24,000 more severely underweight children being born. A study in Ethiopia, published in January 2017, found that food prices increase, malnutrition could begin in the mother’s womb itself.

The authors (of this article) have registered increasing malnutrition on a monthly basis since July 2019 in South Rajasthan, where they have been monitoring the growth of children under three years of age in select villages.

Allocations for PDS and midday meals
In the 2020 Union budget, the allocation for the midday meal scheme has stagnated at Rs 11,000 crore; that for the public distribution system has been cut from Rs 1.84 lakh crore in 2019 to Rs 1.15 lakh crore. The budget for the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) increased moderately from Rs. 27,584.37 crore to Rs 28,557.38 crore.

In the face of higher food prices, these figures are likely to exacerbate the living and health conditions of families already on society’s margins.

Aside from policy measures to reduce the price of food items, the government also has to urgently avail more types of nutritious food, such as pulses and eggs, through the public distribution system and through anganwadis and the midday meal scheme. And to make up for cuts in the Union budget, state governments should set aside higher sums for ICDS, midday meals and food subsidies. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and some other states already have systems in place to provide nutritious food to expectant mothers; other states should also follow suit.

Finally, civil society should be vigilant and monitor the availability of food at the household level, ensure strong links with public entitlements and continue to advocate for higher allocations on schemes that ensure availability of good food at difficult times.