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Dhaka Tribune

Plates full of tears

In South Asia, 1.4 billion people are unable to afford a healthy meal

Update : 29 Dec 2023, 11:08 AM

The misguided priorities combined with short term political thinking has made South Asia the epicentre of the world’s food insecure-hunger zone as roughly 1.4 billion (72.2%) people in this region are unable to afford even the cheapest, locally available  healthy meal, reveals the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report. 

With such a massive number of people struggling to manage two square healthy meals for their family, we must introspect and accept the fact that government policy on food accessibility and food distribution system is not working well on the ground. 

More inequality will lead to more social unrest

The underlying problem runs very deep as 74.1% Indians, 82.8% Pakistanis, 76.4% Nepalis, 66.1% Bangladeshis, and 55.5% Sri Lankan face serious difficulties and challenges to manage a healthy meal for their family. On top of it, South Asia has reported the highest prevalence of anaemia (48.2%) among women aged 15-40 years and also the highest prevalence of low birthweight (24.4%).

It goes without saying that national governments of these countries must not wait but reflect upon “what existing policies, strategies, and institutional mandates support or hinder coherent actions towards food system goals and how to resolve policy incoherence across sectors.” Otherwise, the alternative is dire; more hunger, more poverty, more inequality, and more social unrest.

Country/region

Number of people unable to
afford a healthy diet (million)               

People unable to
afford a healthy diet (%)

Prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15 to 49 years (%)

South Asia

1 408.5

72.2

48.2

Bangladesh

111.9

66.1

36.7

Bhutan

0.4

45.2

38.6

Nepal

22.9

76.4

35.7

Pakistan

191.6

82.8

41.3

Sri Lanka

12.3

55.5

34.6

India

1043.0

74.1

53.0

Source: FAO, 2023

 

Root of the problem is the high food price 

The wave of unrest seen in the region since the last 2-3 years clearly indicates the fact that the vast majority of people in these countries are unable to access basic food items due to high food prices. The 2022 Sri Lanka demonstration is a pointer on how food inflation can bring massive social unrest and if not addressed, can even topple the government. 

The annual food price inflation in Sri Lanka was at 85.8% and prices of non-food items were at 62.8% in the first quarter of 2022. In Bangladesh, food inflation continuously increased and recently soared to 12.54% in August 2023 which was a 12-year high according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. According to another research report, some 96% and 89% of people in Bangladesh have reduced their meat and fish consumption respectively in the last six months due to high inflation and rising food prices. 

Nepal's 29 million people are facing a surge in food and energy prices, raising the risk of social unrest. The annual retail inflation accelerated to a six-year high of 7.52% in mid-August 2023, according to data released by Nepal Rastra Bank. In India, food inflation, which accounts for nearly half of the overall consumer price basket, was 8.70% in November,2023. The food price in Pakistan is even worse as the cost of food in Pakistan increased 27.95% in November 2023 over the same month in the previous year. Food Inflation in Pakistan averaged 10.84% from 2011 until 2023, reaching an all-time high of 48.65% in May 2023. 

As of today, there is neither any country level concrete strategy-action plan, nor any joint regional level cooperation mechanism to check food prices in the region. When 75% of the population typically spend a relatively large part of their income (40-50%) on food items, the food security situation cannot improve unless the governments take a hard position to regulate soaring essential food items, by any means possible. 

Additionally, it is due to the currency depreciation against the US dollar- mostly happening because of falling exports (for example  India's exports dip 2.83% to $33.9 bn in November, 2023) and with most of the food items are exported in US dollar currency, these countries with weaker currencies (Bangladesh Taka lost 21.88% value, Indian rupee 11.37%, Pakistani rupee 28.15%) have resulted in the increase of country’s food import bill, which in a way is also responsible for high food price in the local retail market.

The rising food price will continue to squeeze the living standards of millions. Thus, taming food inflation should be the immediate priority of national governments in the region. 

Sachi Satapathy is the Director of Asia based research-evaluation agency, AF Development Care (AFDC), New Delhi, India. Email: [email protected].

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