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A Nutritious Budget?

While the hunger is actual, the size of the economy must remain a consummation to be devoutly wished for or even just a pie in the sky amidst the slowdown.

SNS | New Delhi |

For once, the Government has been remarkably sensitive to reports of malnutrition , when not starvation deaths… in parallel to the starry-eyed vision of a trillion-dollar economy in the near future. While the hunger is actual, the size of the economy must remain a consummation to be devoutly wished for or even just a pie in the sky amidst the slowdown.

Which explains the critical impetus to address the reality of hunger in Nirmala Sitharaman’s second budget for 2020-21. It thus comes about that an allocation of Rs 35,600 crore has been proposed, one that can well be contextualised with the Economic Survey’s reference to what it calls “zero hunger” as the government’s primary focus area.

Thus far, the concept has been as nebulous as “zero tolerance” of an aberration. The pump-priming of the social sector will hopefully cover a welter of nutrition programmes, pre-eminently the Poshan Abhiyaan or Nutrition Mission, launched by the BJP government in 2017-18. There has as yet been no tangible change; the scenario remains ever so grim.

The hike in allocation ought also to address a major lacuna in the Food Security Act, which specifies the allotment of foodgrain, but somehow skirts the equally vital aspect of nutrition ~ essential for the health of the child, his/her assimilation of learning, and physical development. The Poshan Abhiyaan, it would be useful to recall, was launched to improve the “nutritional status of children below 6, adolescent girls, pregnant women and lactating mothers”.

Sad to reflect, the benefits accruing to the targeted segment have been minimal, if at all on account of the callous carelessness. The minister intends to upload data on nutritional status of more than ten crore households on the smartphones that have been distributed to 6 lakh anganwadi workers. While this blending of privation with technology is worthy of appreciation, the effectiveness of the new agenda will hinge largely on the follow-through.

Endemic hunger chimes oddly with post-modern technology and a bloated economy, if at all. Not wholly unrelated to the core issue of nutrition is the increase in the outlay for the Integrated Programme for Rehabilitation of Beggars, which has been raised from Rs 5 crore in the 2019-20 budget to Rs 100 crore in 2020-21 ~ a 20-fold increase. The Rs 28,600 crore allotted for women’s programmes will be effective ony if maternity mortality rates are lowered, matched with an improvement in nutrition levels.

Very appropriately has the Finance minister linked the nutrition programmes to the equally critical issue of women and child development. Of the total outlay of Rs 30,000 crore for the mother and child as it were, the bulk of the allocation ~ Rs 20,532 crore ~ has been earmarked for the Integrated Child Development Scheme. Overall, it might be tempting to aver that a lady Finance minister has taken care of the gender constituency.

“Yes” and “No”. The proposal to buttress the Nutrition Mission cuts across genders. Whether or not it can be called a “nutritious budget” must await the execution, however.