Reforming the PDS for better nutrition
The article has been authored by Surabhi Mittal, economist, Asia, Nutrition International, New Delhi and A Amarender Reddy, principal scientist (Agricultural Economics), ICAR-Centre Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, Hyderabad.
India ranked 107th out of 121 assessed countries on the 2022 Global Hunger Index (GHI). Although there are some measurement issues in the GHI, the report says there is high malnutrition in India due to rice-wheat biased policies. Malnutrition in India manifests itself in terms of triple burden – underweight especially among poor, hidden hunger (deficiency in micronutrients), and overweight.
The National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA) was introduced to ensure access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people. Under the act, 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population is entitled to a certain quantity of wheat, rice and/or coarse grains (in selected states) at subsidized rates through Public Distribution System (PDS). PDS is cereal-based and has been successful in reducing hunger, but the problem of malnutrition is not addressed within its ambit.
Central government in the recent past has provided flexibility to the state governments to include additional commodities in PDS based on the local needs. For example, pulses procured under Price Stabilisation Buffer and Price Support Scheme are made available to states/ Union Territories (UTs) for distribution under the PDS. In 2019-20 Central government started a pilot project on fortification of rice to distribute under the PDS in 11 districts and found it can be scalable across India to reduce micronutrition deficiencies of iron, folic acid and vitamin B12.
To include diversified foods in the PDS, government has to focus on sustainable production and economically feasible procurement and distribution of diversified foods. Diversification in crop production is also a pathway to increase farmers income through incentivising crop diversification out of paddy-wheat cycle. Many governments are incentivising diversification of food systems, for example, Haryana is providing financial incentives of ₹7,000/acre to farmers for shifting from paddy to pulses, oilseeds and cotton. Odisha incentivised replacement of paddy with vegetables, pulses, ragi, maize, cotton and groundnut through supply of subsidised improved seed varieties. Telangana government is disincentivising paddy production in rabi season to push for diversification.
Governments are already streamlining procurement of pulses and millets in some states. Also, in several states, the local procurement and distribution operations are being done at farm gate through the Primary Agricultural Credit Societies (PACS), women Self Help Groups (SHGs), Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) to reduce transport and other logistic costs as well as getting better prices to the producers. Digitalisation has further strengthened the supply chain and distribution operations under the PDS.
Compared to the food subsidy of about ₹2 lakh crore annually with focus on rice and wheat, inclusion of diversified foods like millets, pulses and fortification will only require a minuscule cost with substantial added benefits. The problem of procurement when market prices are higher than support price can be handled by open market purchases to ensure uninterrupted distribution of millets and pulses.
One of the other impediments for food basket diversification through the PDS is lack of awareness among the consumers about healthy foods. Awareness camps can be targeted to women through panchayat raj institutions, SHGs and FPO groups.
Overall, promoting diversified foods through the PDS, state governments have to play a greater role, as States are free to introduce new commodities under the PDS. Give the reach of the PDS system in nook and corner of the country, it is feasible to use the PDS as a vehicle to manage the issue of undernutrition.
Inclusion of millets, other coarse grains, pulses and lentils, edible oil and biofortified foods will directly contribute to better nutrition and reduce undernourishment and also to the sustainable food production and farmers profitability.