76% of rural Indians can’t afford a nutritious diet: study

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Paper uses latest available food price and wage information from the National Sample Survey’s 2011 dataset.

Three out of four rural Indians cannot afford a nutritious diet, according to a paper recently published in journal Food Policy. Even if they spent their entire income on food, almost two out of three of them would not have the money to pay for the cheapest possible diet that meets the requirements set by the government’s premier nutrition body, it says.

Unlike the Economic Survey’s Thalinomics, which provided a rosier picture of meal costs, this study uses the wages of unskilled workers who make up a larger proportion of the population than industrial workers, and includes items such as dairy, fruit and dark green leafy vegetables that are essential as per India’s official dietary guidelines.

The paper, titled “Affordability of nutritious diets in rural India”, is authored by International Food Policy Research Institute economist Kalyani Raghunathan and others, and uses the latest available food price and wage information from the National Sample Survey’s 2011 dataset.

The findings are significant in the light of the fact that India performs abysmally on many nutrition indicators even while the country claims to have achieved food security. On Friday, the Global Hunger Index showed that India has the world’s highest prevalence of child wasting, reflecting acute undernutrition. On indicators that which simply measure calorie intake, India performs relatively better, but they do not account for the nutrition value of those calories.

The National Institute for Nutrition’s guidelines for a nutritionally adequate diet call for adult women to eat 330 gm of cereals and 75 gm of pulses a day, along with 300 gm of dairy, 100 gm of fruit, and 300 gm of vegetables, which should include at least 100 gm of dark green leafy vegetables. Selecting the cheapest options from actual Indian diets — wheat, rice, bajra, milk, curd, onions, radish, spinach, bananas — the study calculated that a day’s meals would cost ₹45 (or ₹51 for an adult man).

Even if they spent all their income on food, 63.3% of the rural population or more than 52 crore Indians would not be able to afford that nutritious meal. If they set aside just a third of their income for non-food expenses, 76% of rural Indians would not be able to afford the recommended diet. This does not even account for the meals of non-earning members of a household, such as children or older adults.

“These numbers are somewhat speculative, but they do reveal the scale of the dietary affordability problem in rural India: nutritious diets are too expensive, and incomes far too low,” says the paper.

Although their data ended in 2011, since when both food prices and wages have risen, the study’s authors recommended that the government develop a similar tool to monitor dietary costs and affordability of nutritious meals. Currently, food costs are measured through consumer price indices (CPIs) which weight foods by expenditure shares. “In poor countries such as India, CPIs are heavily weighted towards nutrient-sparse starchy staples, meaning that trends in the food CPI can be misleading from a nutritional standpoint,” said the paper.



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