The Preamble to the Food Security Act, 2013 states that the Act’s intent is to provide for food and nutritional security in human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices”(emphasis added). One vehicle that will be used to implement the Act is the Targetted Public Distribution System (TPDS). While targetting access to food in itself is contrary to the intent of the Act, the purpose of this article is not to discuss universalisation vs targetting rather it is to explore the connection between the PDS and the increasing reports on the high incidences of Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in rural India and among the poor in urban India. Why should these non-communicable diseases (NCD) normally associated with overconsumption and obesity be so prevalent among the poorer sections of our society?
There are two components of the PDS that must be examined in this context – subsidised rice and edible oil. The PDS centrally procures and distributes polished white rice which apart from being of poor quality (stale, insect infested) in most States, has zero nutritional value. In fact it has negative nutritional value by virtue of its high glycaemic index. Providing subsidised white, polished rice has forcibly replaced local fibre rich millets and varieties of red / brown rice which have a low glycaemic index. This has resulted in (i) loss of nutrition from the poor household’s food basket thereby contributing to metabolic disorders such as Type II Diabetes along with other causal factors such as stress, poor sanitation etc. and (ii) erosion of local agrobiodiversity leading to loss in ability of communities to adapt to changing climate conditions in the long-term which further compromises the country’s food and nutritional security. The centralised procurement under PDS has destroyed local nutritious varieties of rice. It has replaced more nutritious local grains – a range of millet varieties which are rich in fibre and protein. Some of the millets are excellent sources of iron, calcium, and trace nutrients.
Edible oil that is being pushed through the PDS is palm oil, a replacement for dalda which used to be supplied under the PDS in the pre-TPDS period. It is reported that palm oil contributes to nearly 48% of the domestic edible oil consumption in India partly because it is 20-30% cheaper than other edible oils. Why is palm oil being supplied at a subsidised rate across the country when (i) it has to be imported (ii) the content of saturated fats in palm oil is significantly higher than locally used oils such as groundnut oil, rapeseed oil and sesame oil which were always part of local diets? What is the justification for further compromising the health of people who are already nutritionally compromised? Introduction of Palm Oil to meet the vegetable oil demand in India is ridiculous at so many levels – it is driving the large-scale cultivation of red palm which has resulted in ecological and social devastation in Indonesia and Malaysia; it is replacing traditional fats which were suited to local climate and local dietary needs in India; it is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor in India thereby increasing healthcare costs and driving people deeper into poverty. It is also destroying the local oilseeds agroecosystems where grain, pulses and oilseeds were cultivated as intercrops to meet the needs of humans and animal feed.
In this context it is worth mentioning a recent study published in the British Medical Journal in October 2013 (http://www.bmj.com/ content/347/bmj.f6048) which looks at how economic instruments such as taxes may affect population health in India. The study uses a mathematical model to project that if a 20% tax is imposed on palm oil for domestic consumption, it is likely to avert between 710,000 and 930,000 deaths from myocardial infarction and stroke over 2013-2014. This decline of course is a function of how the consumer uses other fats to substitute the palm oil. The discussion of taxation is probably relevant for consumers who have a choice in the market and who can afford to opt for another edible oil. In the case of India where the State is promoting the use of palm oil by providing it at a subsidised rate in the PDS this is a moot point. People are using this oil because it has been made the cheapest edible oil in the market as a result of skewed State policies. It is contributing to increased healthcare costs for a section of the population that is incapable of accessing good, affordable healthcare since India’s social welfare system does not provide universal healthcare. The PDS therefore is not enabling the individual to be nutritionally secure or adequately nourished rather it is actively compromising the individual’s health and preventing him/her from being able to earn a living or practice a livelihood which is affecting all other facets of his / her life. In essence, the State is contributing to the increase in NCDs among the poor.
While the FSA, 2013 is a step forward towards addressing the issues of undernutrition, unless the PDS basket of goods is revamped with the intention of ensuring true nutritional security it will be a huge waste of resources. The State must put in place a mechanism to decentralise the PDS – decentralised procurement and distribution. This will stimulate local agricultural systems including the much neglected rain-fed areas, revive local oil seeds, provide access to nutritious food including traditional healthy fats as opposed to palm oil, enable people to practice their livelihoods and improve health. The resources that are being used to research and understand why there is an increase in NCDs among the rural and urban poor are probably better spent if allocated to stimulating local agroecosystems and locally relevant food systems.