The elusive 'nutritional diet'
A recently published paper in the journal 'Food Policy' has claimed that 76 per cent of Indians cannot afford a 'nutritional diet' based on available information on informal sector wages and the price of the dietary essentials highlighted under India's prescribed dietary requirements. Aside from the recommended diet, the study also examined the affordability of the cheapest nutrition options and found that a 'nutritious' daily meal would cost Rs 45. Even this is too expensive for most Indians with the study saying that even if 63.3 per cent of the rural population spent all their income on food, they would not be able to afford this diet. The study also noted that these figures do not even take into account the non-earning members of the household.
All this comes back to an age-old point that gets frequently reiterated. Eating healthy is expensive. This is regardless of a nation's definition of a 'nutritional diet'. This was demonstrated in 2019 when it was found that the universal diet recommended by a Lancet Commission would be unaffordable for 1.58 billion people worldwide. Most of these people would predictably be found in South Asia with 38.97 per cent of Indians not able to afford the most basic options of this diet as per 2011 prices. This is particularly true in India for the poultry, eggs, fish, fruits, legumes and nuts requirement under this diet. Interestingly, it was confirmed that as per this dietary recommendation, Indians on average ate too many carbohydrates, sugars and processed foods while eating less protein and fruits and vegetables than recommended.
The picture of the average Indian diet becomes even bleaker when one considers a recent World Food Programme report that compared the global prices for a plate of food proportional to the average income. The report found that on average, Indians spend 3.5 per cent of their daily earnings on a plate of food. In comparison, an average New Yorker would spend 0.6 per cent. The most expensive plate of food, as per the report, was that which would be found in South Sudan, costing a jaw-dropping 186 per cent of the daily wage. The reasons for an expensive plate of food vary but invariably a large inequality is observed between the developed and the developing world in this regard as well.
By itself, world hunger has once again become a growing problem in recent years. Now, a global pandemic has made the whole situation more desperate. As per WFP estimates, there may be as many as 265 million people who reach a point of starvation within a year as a result of this crisis. In India, the migrant worker crisis became the face of this growing inequality in times of COVID-19. Recently, the 2020 version of the Global Hunger Index put India at the 94th spot out of 107 nations. While experts have said that India has some of the most impressive nutrition campaigns on paper, the ground reality has been different from the top-down approach, poor implementation and monitoring process leading to lacking results. As per this report, 14 per cent of India's population would come under the category of undernourished.
Alongside the many reports that detail the lacking state of health infrastructure in India, this means that staying healthy is for the financially stable in this country as it is in many parts of the world. It is disadvantaged who are unable to fully comply with government directives on social distancing, mask-wearing and hand washing, exposing them to the brunt of the disease. It is these very same disadvantaged citizens who cannot afford a healthy diet or medical attention, aggravating the situation. Not only do these inadequacies make the work of ending this global health crisis more difficult, but they also damage the much valued working demographic of countries like India. Just as this pandemic has highlighted the glaring faultlines in may of our modern systems, it has exposed
gaps in the human narrative of states providing 'health' to its citizens as one of its basic responsibilities. Knowing the problem and acknowledging it is the first step in the right direction.