Except for the hilly nations of Nepal and Bhutan, the South Asian countries are endowed with natural resources, which are highly conducive to agriculture: fertile land, perennial rivers, regular sunshine, and lots of hands for farming. The Green Revolution has largely been a success story and yet, food and nutrition security in the region is not a given as climate change may be a real threat to South Asian food security.
According to the World Bank projections, the region will have lower crop yield due to the impact of climate change and it is already being felt. The IPCC Working Group II’s synthesis of research finds that by 2050, climate change may cause of loss of two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in South Asian countries.
Impact of Climate Change
The devastating impact of floods experienced in Pakistan, from June 2022 to August 2022, caused havoc in the agriculture sector. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), about 14.6 million people needed food assistance even six months after the floods. It is estimated that 8.6 million people face an extreme level of food insecurity. Coupled with the depletion of foreign exchange reserves, food inflation in February 2023 reached 45.1 percent. The impact of these events on the nutrition of vulnerable population can only be imagined.
In the third week of March 2023, several parts of India also received unseasonal rains, hail and strong winds. It is feared that wheat, mustard, banana, grapes, orange and mango crops in several areas have suffered damage.
Indian diets are largely cereal-based, a paper published by the World Resources Institute based on National Sample Survey 2011-12 has noted. The major source of proteins, about 60 percent, was cereals, mainly wheat and rice.
The researchers highlight that the consumption of proteins has been rising in the world and it is about 68 gm per person per day. However, Indians consume a lesser quantity of proteins, averaging just about 47 gm per person per day. One reason for the low intake of protein-rich diets is that they are more expensive. For this reason, the poorer sections of the Indian population might be consuming much less than 47 gm of protein per day.
India’s public distribution system is also cereal based – it provides free wheat and rice (5 kg per person per month) to about 800 million people. Protein-rich foods such as pulses have to be purchased from the open market. Only a few state governments use their own funds to provide proteins in the form of pulses through the Public Distribution System (PDS).
Pakistan, with a largely non-vegetarian population, has about 40 percent of households that are protein deficient. That proportion is higher in urban areas at 58 percent.
School Meals for Children
For improving the nutritional standard of school-going children, India is running PM POSHAN, an ambitious programme which was launched in 1995. About 118 million children studying in 1.12 million schools are covered under this. The National Food Security Act, 2013 (Schedule II) mandates that cooked warm meals are to be provided to children in government schools. These meals are to provide 450 calories and 12 grams of protein for primary school students and 700 calories and 20 grams of protein for children studying in upper primary classes.
In Nepal, the World Food Programme (WFP) has been providing school meals under which rice and pulses are provided to children. The Nepalese government has been taking over the operation of the programme from WFP, but it provides only (Nepalese) Rs 15 per student per meal to the schools which are expected to provide cooked lunch to primary class students (up to class five) for 180 days a year.
In Pakistan, the federal government started a mid-day meal programme in 100 state primary schools in Islamabad in 2022. But 44 percent of children aged 5-16 years are not enrolled in schools in Pakistan. It means that 22.8 million children are out-of-school. So, the mid-day meal programme is tiny as compared to the requirement of Pakistan.
World Bank Intervention
To promote innovative solutions to malnutrition in the sub-continent, the World Bank started the South Asia Food and Nutrition Security Initiative (SAFANSI). The first phase of the programme was implemented from 2010 to 2015. The second phase began in December 2014. was announced. One of the objectives was to bring about behavioural changes in the population such that there is higher awareness about nutritional security. The programme also aimed to promote regional collaboration between the South Asian nations.
Funding was to be provided to the eight South Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. An important component of the programme was to reach out to the population at large through media. Another project under SAFANSI reached out to pregnant mothers, children under two years of age and rural farmers.
The general awareness about nutrition in South Asia is extremely poor and there is hardly any evidence of a focused campaign to educate people about the importance of nutritious and diversified diets. Packaged food has made inroads in the rural areas of India and even poor mothers, working as agricultural labour, prefer feeding biscuits and noodles to their children.
Deficiency of Vitamin A and D is very high in India, and it can be addressed by fortifying milk with Vitamin A and D. However, India’s largest cooperative milk federation which markets milk under the highly popular brand name, Amul, does not fortify the milk sold by it.
To achieve better nutritional outcomes, diets must include proteins that are required by every tissue of the human body. Proteins provide the necessary enzymes needed by the body and haemoglobin which carries oxygen in the blood.
South Asian countries need to do much more to build awareness about better nutrition with locally available food that is rich in proteins, minerals, vitamins, fats and carbohydrates. School meal programmes must also include protein-rich foods like eggs. This can easily meet part of the protein requirement of children coming from non-vegetarian families.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has launched Eat Right campaign. Similarly, the Right To Protein campaign aims to create awareness about proteins in the diet. Better awareness should help in addressing the challenge of malnutrition in other South Asian countries also. A handsome part of the publicity budget of governments must be earmarked for nutrition.
Siraj Hussain is a former Agriculture Secretary to the Government of India. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.