There is a growing divergence in the relationship between poverty and hunger in India. The shrinking of social expenditure by the government is forcing the poor to spend more on non-food essential items squeezing their food-budget – Elucidate. (10 marks)

Mentor Comments:

  • https://www.civilsdaily.com/news/op-ed-snap-setting-a-proper-diet-plan/
  • The demand for the question is that you should substantiate with examples and data to show how there is a growing divergence between poverty and hunger.
  • In the intro, mention the present condition of hunger in India despite one of the best GDP numbers in the world.
  • In the 1st part of the main body, you need to explain with examples about how the government’s expenditure on the social sector is decreasing and thus leading to poor spending more on non-food essentials like Health, Medicines, etc.
  • There are also various other reasons for it like uneven access to jobs in all parts of the country, displacement of farmers, etc. All these, coupled with lack of public investment in health, education and other social sectors, has led to poor fetching out more out of pocket expenses on these items than on food.
  • Before ending the answer, mention the improvements India has made in halving poverty, reducing malnutrition, child wasting & Stunting among others.
  • Also, discuss some of the way forward from your end.

Answer:

During the last decade and more, even though India has become the highest growing economy in the world after China, it has continued to outnumber Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the absolute number of hungry people. The government of India claims a substantial reduction in the prevalence of poverty in the country, but evidence suggests a startling divergence between the real per capita expenditure and the per capita calorie intake, which underlies the divergence between the decline in poverty and hunger.

The growing divergence between poverty and hunger and the reason behind it:

  • Contrary to the popularly held belief that food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, there is a growing divergence in the relationship between poverty and hunger in India. 
  • India is currently experiencing a “food-budget squeeze” owing to shrinking social expenditure by the government. 
  • This makes the urban and rural poor dependent on private entities for essential services like education and transportation, which are likely to be more expensive. 
  • Consequently, the portion of income that can be spent on food also shrinks.
  • Rather than being a matter of choice, the poor have been increasingly forced to spend more on non-food essential items such as education, healthcare, transportation, fuel, and lighting. 
  • The share of monthly expenditure devoted to these items has increased at such a pace that it has absorbed all the increase in real income over the past three decades. 
  • This has led to a “food budget squeeze”, which has meant relatively stagnant real food expenditure over the last two decades. 

Several factors have led to or compounded the effects of the food budget squeeze.

  • Primitive accumulation of capital has led to increasing displacement and dispossession of farmers, destruction of rural livelihoods and loss of access to common property resources like forests, ponds, grazing lands, and rivers. Along with the growth of landlessness, shrinking access to common property resources have led to sharp declines in access to non-market sources of food.
  • Second, the structure of the occupation has been undergoing rapid change. 
  • Rural working people are migrating in large numbers to urban centers or other rural areas in search of work. Most of such migration is temporary and seasonal in character and involves traveling relatively large distances. This large circulation of labor will have substantial impacts on the expenditure patterns of households. 
  • For instance, an increasingly footloose labor force means that a large section of the working poor has to bear higher costs of transportation, maintain communication with the sites of work (much of which is seasonal in character), and are deprived of traditional non-market sources of food when away from home. 
  • Most important, shrinking social expenditure by the government is rendering the urban and rural poor dependent on market prices of non-food essential items, which are typically high. 
  • Contrary to what is commonly believed by pro-reform economists and commentators, economic reforms initiated in the mid-1980s did not increase efficiency and reduce the relative price of essential services like healthcare, education, transportation. In fact, the price of food relative to miscellaneous components – education, healthcare, conveyance, and consumer services – of the consumer price index for agricultural laborers (CPIAL) has slightly declined between 1983 and 2017.
  • It is the resulting squeeze on food budgets that have led to calorie intake declining even as per capita consumption expenditure has risen.

Way Forward:

  • Despite the fact that the rate of global food production has been consistently higher than the rate of population growth, there is a persistent and pervasive crisis when it comes to food security. Therefore, hunger can only be dealt with by, carrying out the policies of income redistribution, which respond to objectives of social justice rather than economic efficiency as perceived by neo-liberalism.
  • Scholars have argued that a substantial push in public provisioning towards social protection might go a long way in ensuring food security.
  • In most developing countries, one of the biggest issues, with respect to public provisioning towards social protection, to address hunger and food insecurity is organically connected with that of adequate fiscal or ‘expenditure space. 
  • Contrary to the view that countries with low GDP cannot create such a space, even at low levels of income, it is possible to mobilize adequate resources for the provisioning of social protection. 
  • Neither conceptually nor historically, there is no reason to believe that a country needs to wait to reach relatively high levels of per capita income before it can make adequate progress in this regard, even though the higher income, of course, helps in doing so.

When the public distribution system (PDS) is absent or out of reach, people have to rely on nutritious food on the market, where prices for such food items are typically high. The result is calorie deprivation. In such a scenario, a way out is to make nutritious food available through the PDS at a price that is much lower than the less calorific, tasty food, so that the price difference between the two becomes an incentive to stick to nutritious food. But, to ensure that this mechanism is effective, we need to move towards a robust, universal PDS, and not the limited one as visualized in the National Food Security Act.

 

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