India already spends nearly 1% of its GDP—the food subsidy bill for FY20 is pegged at Rs. 1.84 lakh crore—and expanding the PDS list like this will add a massive sum to the government’s outgo.
NITI Aayog is mooting a proposal to extend government subsidy on food to protein-rich foods, including egg, fish, and meat, and make them available through PDS. Given that India faces a double burden—housing a quarter of the global hunger burden while facing a growing burden of obesity—and that over 68% of deaths in India among children aged under five years are due to malnutrition, the proposal seems well-intended. However, India already spends nearly 1% of its GDP—the food subsidy bill for FY20 is pegged at Rs. 1.84 lakh crore—and expanding the PDS list like this will add a massive sum to the government’s outgo. The government would be better able to meet nutrition goals if it were to focus on tied direct benefits transfer instead.
IFPRI and J-PAL South Asia studies found that cash transfers are not only less costly to implement but also encourage greater diet diversity. That Indians are moving toward “oily, sugary and spicy food” as opposed to diversifying to more nutritive options is, according to NITI Aayog’s Ramesh Chand, one of the major reasons why the proposal is being considered. It is surprising that the government think-tank should recommend an avenue—in-kind transfers—that research across the globe shows is guaranteed to fail to result in diet diversification. In addition, the battle against malnutrition must focus on social and behaviour change communication. For instance, despite the impact that such campaigns have had on health and nutrition, India has not seriously pursued any since the hugely successful 1980s campaign to promote egg consumption.