India’s rapid economic growth is not helping curb undernutrition, according to the Global Food Policy Report released on Wednesday by the International Food Policy Research Institute, which provides research-based policy solutions to tackle poverty and malnutrition.

In October last year the institute ranked India 97 among 118 countries on the Global Hunger Index. India fared worse than almost all its neighbours – China, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Only Pakistan ranked lower at 107.

The new food policy report shows that India is caught in a paradox situation. “Its rapid economic growth is coupled with a much slower decline in undernutrition,” said the report, which links growing urbanisation with an increase in malnutrition. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-’16, about 38.4% children living in India are stunted or too short for their age.

The report projects that 900 million urban residents will be added in just three countries – China, India, and Nigeria – by 2050. With the growing urbanisation and migration to cities that is already taking place, a significant proportion of children living in urban areas are stunted. The report says that one in three stunted children now lives in an urban area of developing countries such as India. “Persistent child undernutrition, stubborn micronutrient deficiencies and an alarming rise in overweight and obesity in urban areas mark the shift of the burden of malnutrition from rural areas to cities,” finds the report.

In India where 17% of urban dwellers or 65 million people live in slums, the problem of malnutrition is glaring. A study cited in the report found that exclusive breastfeeding, which offers infants protection from infections was low in slums both due to bad social practices and poor utilisation of health services.

Another problem peculiar to urban and semi-urban areas are inroads made by the packaged food industry. A study in an urban slum in India found that 66% of households consume packaged snacks high in fat, with two-thirds consuming these daily spoke to Anjani Kumar, a research fellow at the South Asia Regional Office of the International Food Policy Research Institute and one of the authors of the report. Here are excerpts.

Is urban poverty a result of government’s incapability to develop rural areas? Is such distress migration responsible for the shift from traditional to unhealthy modern diets?
There should not be any problem for developmental migration but if people are compelled to migrate just to acquire two square meals a day is not a healthy situation. This is partly attributed to lopsided industrial development. If you look at the household income profile of a framing household, about 50% of their income is from other sources. More and more development of rural farm sector is required so that farming will be a part–time activity. Agriculture is a seasonal activity and cannot provide employment for 365 days.

Owing to such distress migrations, we are forgetting the traditional diets which were more nutritious. Most of the food items available in urban areas at cheap prices are fast-food and not healthy. The popularisation of western food items such as pizza and burger may not be a healthy substitute. Urban poor do not have sufficient incomes to purchase good quality food items.

I think the food processing industry needs to diversify and include nutritional items such as raagi and coarse grains, which have disappeared from the plates from most of the households, even in rural areas.

The report says that one in three stunted children living in a developing country such as India and are from urban poor settlements. Indian schemes for ensuring food safety are largely focused on rural regions. Why is it that urban poor are not covered under nutritional entitlements meant for children and families?
If we recall the food security programme and public distribution system universal before 1997 and it was tilted towards urban areas, but after 1997 the focus was given to rural areas with the targeted public distribution system. It created a kind of imbalance. Urbanisation of poverty and malnutrition is a fact and distress migration is leading to malnutrition. There is less focus on urban slums and there is less focus on urban children. A poor is poor whether they are located in rural or urban areas. The intensity of poverty is lesser in urban areas but when compared to rural regions, the environment in urban slums because of poor sanitation is a problem, which compound the problem of undernutrition and malnourishment. This is going to be a very alarming situation. With the same level of income, a rural poor is better off than an urban poor in terms of nutritional intake.

Urbanisation is a development process of any country. We should have a foresight about water requirement, drainage requirement, sanitation facilities etc. . We need decentralised urbanisation, everything should not be concentrated in Mumbai and Delhi. The migration should be widespread and growth centers need to establish across the country.

Anjani Kumar.

The focus of nutritional entitlements is usually on children and not pregnant women. The Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Amrut Ahar Yojna meant for feeding pregnant and lactating women is restricted to tribal regions and not extended to urban poor settlements? How important it is to focus on pregnant mothers to tackle malnutrition?
Large number of women in South Asia are anaemic. The problem is that there are policies but the implementation is weak. Our research has shown that beneficiaries are not getting the full benefits from the schemes. There is a need to have more and more focus on pregnant women. If the mother is healthy only than we can expect that newborn will be healthy. According to literature, malnourished children do not achieve their potential growth both in terms of physical and cognitive development.

The benefits of healthy diets and nutritional supplements should be extended to pregnant women and lactating mothers in urban settlements also. The situation of pregnant women and lactating mothers in urban slums is really pathetic.

In November, Indian government demonetised all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. What have the implications of demonetisation on food security been?Demonetisation in the short run may have some adverse effects. But, in the long run it should have positive effects. There has been a contraction in demand in the short run and reduction in the prices of agricultural commodities has been observed, which adversely affected the farmers and there was some disruption in the supply of inputs too. Indian economy is largely informal and 70-80% of agricultural commodities are still marketed through informal traders. In short run, a few small and medium enterprises were closed and labours were displaced.

The objective of demonetisation is to curb the corruption and increase formalisation of the economy. We expect that revenue will increase to the government coffers and this will help to launch new agricultural projects. Credit will be also cheaper. I think farmers will be integrated to different markets and they will be able to fetch better prices for their produce with initiatives to reform agricultural marketing along with demonetisation and digitalisation of transactions.