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Universal PDS can fix the problem of malnutrition

posted Sep 28, 2011, 10:25 PM by Puneet Goyal

In the new model, PDS would only supply nutritious items such as millet and pulses, and not distribute sugar or wheat.

The storm around Planning Commission's submission to the Supreme Court suggesting that the benchmark for poor families entitled to below-poverty-line (BPL) cards for public distribution system (PDS) be set at an expenditure levels of 32 per person per day for urban areas and 26 per person per day for rural areas has drawn flak as an unrealistic cutoff for who should be considered poor. Unfortunately, it clouds the issue of what to do about undernutrition in the country and what interventions are needed. 

There is no doubt that the poverty threshold suggested by the Planning Commission, based onTendulkar Committee report, is just that: poverty threshold. People living just above it are by no means rich. If one were to raise this poverty threshold by 50%, bringing in another 25-30% of the population in its ambit, we would still be talking about people living at the margins, only 30% would have access to piped water and toilet. 

Thus, there is justification for including those living above the poverty line into our definition of poor. If expenditure involved in this expansion does not detract from other national priorities such as education and health, it is an easy case to make that this group should also be included in the BPLcategory. 

However, if this expansion is being undertaken to address the persistent malnutrition, we have less reason to be sanguine about this ultimate success. Two observations underlie this pessimism: 

First, raising the proportion of the population that is entitled to subsidised grain via PDS does not mean that the poor will get access to it. Our ability to identify and target poor households is low. A survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland in 2004-05 found that among the poor, only 48% had access to BPL cards while 31% of the non-poor households had access to BPL cards. So, half the BPL households remain without food subsidy, while a third of the households above the proposed poverty line seem to receive food subsidies. Leakages in the system remain, reducing the efficacy of food subsidies. 

Second, it is not clear that poverty is the main cause of malnutrition. The National Family Health Survey-III documents that two out of five children in the bottom 80% of households are too short for their age, it is only in the top 20% of the households that we see substantial decrease in undernutrition. 

About 60% of the children are anaemic even in the richest 20% of the households while nearly 80% are anaemic in the poorest 20%. This does not mean that income plays no role in generating malnutrition, but its role seems more limited. So, regardless of the poverty threshold used for eligibility of subsidised grain distribution, the problem of malnutrition may not be easily solved. 

The paradox of high economic growth with persistent malnutrition requires a better understanding of what causes malnutrition in the country and targeted interventions. We don't fully understand this paradox yet, but the available research has highlighted two issues that are eminently amenable to policy intervention. First, malnutrition is not only caused by lack of food.