Indian Enigma

Row of young Indian children look at the camera

One-third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. © 2003 A. Vitale/Panos

It shouldn’t be like this. In India, where economic growth has boomed in recent years, more than 40 percent of children under age five suffer from malnutrition. Although India’s Green Revolution averted outright famine decades ago, the country is now home to one-third of the world’s undernourished children. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called child malnutrition in India a “national shame.”

“It’s a strange anomaly,” says IFPRI Senior Research Fellow Stuart Gillespie. “Agriculture is not doing enough for nutrition in India.” To investigate this “Indian enigma,” IFPRI researchers undertook a project called Tackling the Agriculture-Nutrition Disconnect in India (TANDI) from 2010 to 2012.

How Are They Linked?

The researchers brought together nutritionists, economists, and experts from other disciplines to identify the major pathways between agriculture and nutrition. Among the key pathways they identified, some are straightforward and others less so. Clearly, for example, agriculture is the primary source of food and income in India, and agricultural policy and production patterns affect food prices.

More complicated links relate to the feminization of the farm labor force in India. As women make up an increasing share of agricultural labor, do they benefit from greater control over income, or do they find themselves overworked and unable to provide adequate care to their children? More evidence is needed to answer questions like this.

“We looked at knowledge gaps, the need for a cohesive national strategy to improve nutrition, and ways that policymakers and researchers from the agriculture, social, nutrition, and health sectors could work together more effectively,” says Suneetha Kadiyala, an IFPRI research fellow.

Can’t Agriculture Do More?

Given the economic importance of India’s agricultural sector—it employs more than half the country’s workforce—it could do more to reduce undernutrition.

The TANDI researchers suggest how. Existing agricultural programs, such as India’s National Horticulture Mission and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, could take on nutrition-related goals. The country could improve access to nutrient-rich foods by reforming markets and developing nutrition-sensitive value chains, investing in research and development to boost production of pulses, and using safety net programs to distribute locally produced nutritious foods such as milk and eggs to vulnerable people. Women’s cooperatives or producer groups could be a tool for bringing together agricultural, nutrition, and health
interventions.

“To really improve nutrition sustainably in a country where poor people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods,” says Gillespie, “agriculture should play a significant role.”

For more information on this topic:

Two looks at the links between agriculture and nutrition in India:

Policy options for strengthening agriculture’s contribution to nutrition in India

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