CAA’s Articulate – The majority cannot afford a balanced diet in India


  • New analysis from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that millions of people in India above the international poverty line cannot afford a healthy or nutritious diet.

More on the news:

  • Every year, the FAO, in partnership with other United Nations organizations, publishes a report on food security across the world.
  • This year’s State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 (SOFI 2020) was released recently.
  • A new feature of SOFI 2020 is a detailed analysis of the “cost and affordability of healthy diets around the world”.
  • This analysis confirms the fact that the problem of poor nutrition in India is largely on account of the unaffordability of good diets, and not on account of lack of information on nutrition or tastes or cultural preferences.
  • The analysis says that the large majority of Indians cannot afford a balanced diet.

Types of diets

  • Basic energy sufficient diet:
    • This is one in which the required calorie intake is met by consuming only the cheapest starchy cereal available (eg rice or wheat).
    • A requirement of 2,329 Kcal for a healthy young woman of 30 years is taken as the standard reference.
  • Nutrient adequate diet:
    • In this type, the required calorie norms and the stipulated requirement of 23 macro- and micro-nutrients are met.
    • It includes least-cost items from different food groups.
  • Healthy diet:
    • This diet meets the calorie norm and the macro- and micro-nutrient norm and also allows for the consumption of a diverse diet, from several food groups.
    • Defining this type of diet is more complex than the other two diets, and the FAO uses actual recommendations for selected countries.
    • The Indian recommendation includes consumption of items from six groups: starchy staples, protein-rich food (legumes, meat and eggs), dairy, vegetables, fruits, and fats.

Findings of the recent analysis for South Asia

  • The energy-sufficient diet or eating only cereals to meet your calorie requirement costs around 80 cents a day in South Asia, and is thus affordable to a poor person or one defined as having an income of $1.9 a day.
    • Therefore, the poor in India and other South Asian countries can get their calories by sticking to rice or wheat alone.
  • The nutrient-adequate diet costs $2.12 a day
    • This cost is more than the international poverty line.
    • Even if a person with income just above the poverty line spent her entire daily expenditure on food (ignoring fuel, transport, rent, medicines, or any other expenditure) she would not be able to afford the nutrient-adequate diet.
      • The SOFI report assumes that a person cannot spend more than 63% of the total expenditure on food (that is, 37% would be required for non-food essentials).
  • The healthy diet costs $4.07 a day, or more than twice the international poverty line.
    • Therefore, a healthy diet is totally unaffordable for those with incomes at even twice the poverty line.
  • The SOFI report estimates that
    • 18% of South Asians cannot afford the nutrient-adequate diet and
    • 58% of South Asians cannot afford a healthy diet.

Way ahead

  • Redefining poverty line
    • Indian poverty line of 2011-12, as defined by the Tendulkar Committee, amounted to Rs. 33 per day in urban areas and Rs. 27 per day in rural areas, and corresponded roughly to $1 a day at international PPP prices.
    • Also, there has been no redefinition of the poverty line in the last decade.
      • It is thus lower than the international poverty line($1.9) used in the SOFI report.
  • Assessing impact of COVID-19
    • The number of people who cannot afford a healthy diet will have risen in the last three months.
    • This is because of the collapse of employment and incomes for the majority of workers in the informal sector.
  • Making changes to the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana
    • The scheme offers up to November 2020, an additional 5 kg of wheat or rice and 1 kg of gram or lentils a month free of cost to all households with ration cards.
    • This is a welcome move but utterly inadequate to address the massive and growing problem of malnutrition.


  • If India wants to reduce malnutrition and food insecurity, we have to address the problem of affordability of healthy diets first.