Food scarcity as possible cause of death: Report

Food scarcity as possible cause of death: Report

Kamaraj IAS Academy | Food scarcity as possible cause of death: Report
  • January 7, 2019, 4:48 pm

In news

Two months after the West Bengal government denied any food scarcity as a possible cause of death of seven persons from a tribal community, a survey report has identified “food scarcity in varying degrees” in about 31% of tribal households in West Bengal.

About the study

The study titled ‘An Inquiry into the world of the Adivasis of West Bengal’, conducted by Professor Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Institute and Asiatic Society. The survey was conducted in 1,000 tribal households to ascertain living conditions, health and education.

The preliminary survey report claimed that “nearly one third [31%] of the surveyed households” reportedly faced “food scarcity in varying degrees” in the past year.


  1. While some households faced acute hunger only in some months (August–October), in many cases, people had half-meals only twice a day. Also, in some cases, adult members reportedly ate only once a day. Also, in some cases, adult members [of households] reportedly ate only once a day,” the report noted. Most of the families surveyed could hardly afford animal protein or pulses.
  2. In addition “poverty-born vices like alcoholism and the fragility of the public health system seemed to have resulted in a much lower life chances among the Adivasis than their more privileged co-citizens,” the report noted.
  3. Degradation of forest and environmental degradation are cited as two more reasons for “reduced availability of natural nutrients” resulting in early deaths.
  4. The report indicated that the number of deaths reported to have occurred in the surveyed households, in the year preceding the survey, “was 52, among which 48 [92%] were premature deaths” and only four were due to old age.
  5. “The average age of the [tribal] persons who died was 58 years, which is much shorter than the life expectancy at birth” (70 years in West Bengal).
  6. The work participation rate [WPR] is higher among the Adivasis in Bengal “forcing the children of school going age to discontinue their studies in order to fend for themselves and support the families,” the report noted.
  7. However, a higher rate of work participation has not contributed to a better living standard, indicated the survey, which followed a “mixed-method approach” combining quantitative and qualitative data. In the area of health and education, too, tribal communities are far behind the rest of State’s population.
  8. “A substantial number of…children whose immunisation cards were available were not fully immunised: of 36 children, only 21 (58%) were, as recorded in the cards, found to be fully immunised.”
  9. Moreover, 44% of households do not have access to toilets and nearly two-thirds of the households had no drainage system, the report noted.

Causes of food scarcity

  1. Ineffective implementation of schemes- The top-down approach followed by government schemes does not cater for food habits of tribal.
  2. The PDS, Supplement Nutrition and Take home ration schemes have not been effective in addressing the issue of malnutrition in the state. Most of the tribal families did not have ration cards to avail the benefits of the scheme.
  3. Poor quality of services – It was found that grains infested with insects, worms and other containment were being supplied to the tribal. Except for carbohydrates and proteins, other food groups – milk and dairy products, fruit and vegetables, and fats and sugars – were missing from the diet of the food being supplied by the government. The Aaganwadi’s either do not serve the meals or serve meals of ‘poor quality and quantity.’ Also, they did not have toilets or had toilets in unusable condition, adding further to the malnutrition problem.
  4. Isolation- Tribal areas still lack the basic amenities- health infrastructure facilities which could be instrumental in addressing health problems due to malnutrition, addiction to alcohol, teenage pregnancies and poor hygiene practices which further adds to the miseries of tribal people. India’s efforts at improving access to food and good nutrition are led by the National Food Security Act. There are special nutritional schemes for women and children operated through the States.
  5. Institutions such as the State Food Commissions have not made a big difference either. Distributing nutritious food as a public health measure is still not a political imperative, while ill-conceived policies are making it difficult for many to do this. The report on nutritional deficiency should serve as an opportunity to evaluate the role played by the PDS in bringing about dietary diversity for those relying on subsidised food.
  6. The government failure is due to lack of a comprehensive plan for tribal development.
  7. Poor Monitoring, irregular and delayed PDS services with two to three month delivery gap, also the quota delivered was not as per the entitlement.
  8. The poor infrastructure and connectivity makes the services centres inaccessible for people and they often walk for several kilometres. So, government also failed to build sufficient infrastructure.
  9. State government failed to focus on the special needs of the tribals as they vary culturally and geographically from other beneficiaries.
  10. State government has also failed to create awareness among indigenous tribals due to illiteracy, there is less knowledge about “hygiene”, “balanced diet. A critical aspect of nutrient adequacy is “diet diversity”, calculated by different groupings of foods consumed with the reference period ranging from one to 15 days.

Way forward

Nutrition interventions and tracking progress cannot be done without sufficient information and reliable, updated data, and the operationalisation of a national nutrition surveillance system. Thus, there exists the need to collect and maintain real-time data on various nutrition indicators using ICT and GIS. It is time the government looks at the root cause of the issue and finds a sustainable solution for tackling malnutrition. This is possible only when the state focusses on inclusive development by creating employment opportunities for the marginalised which would improve their purchasing power, diversify their diet and, in turn, reduce malnutrition.

In a report issued two years ago on the role played by rations in shaping household and nutritional security, the NITI Aayog found that families below the poverty line consumed more cereals and less milk compared to the affluent. Complementing rice and wheat with more nutritious food items should be the goal.