Rising Food Inflation Makes Rural India Turn To Rotis, Watery Dal

A deadly combination of rising hunger, skyrocketing food prices and falling incomes has made life in rural India miserable.

Children are some of the worst affected by the current situation in rural India.

New Delhi:

Nazir, 70-year-old farmer from Naya Khera village in Hardoi district of Uttar Pradesh, has cooked a meal of watered-down dal and rotis for dinner. "To make the dal tighter, I will need more dal. When we have less money, the dal will also be less," he says.

Nazir is one of many in India who are feeling the bite of rising hunger, rising food prices and falling incomes. 

A NITI Aayog report from December 2019, showed that India's performance on ensuring zero hunger had fallen by 13 points in a year since 2018. The sharp increase in food inflation -- it has now hit a six-year-high at 14.12% -- appears to have exacerbated the hunger problem in the country.

Vegetables have seen the highest inflation, over 60%, becoming one of the first things to disappear from many kitchens in rural India. The average monthly retail price in Lucknow of onion grew from Rs 20 in December 2018 to Rs 95 in December 2019. Price of potatoes rose from Rs 16 to Rs 20 and the price of tomatoes rose from Rs 18 to Rs 26 during the same period.

For families like that of Ram Prakash, a landless farmer in Mujahidpur village of Hardoi district who earns about Rs 100-200 a day, their hand-to-mouth existence has been threatened further by his potato crops being ruined this harvest season by unseasonal rains. The women of his family say that they only have wheat flour, rice and some potatoes in their kitchen now. They say they have no other vegetables around. 

Similarly, near Malihamau in Hardoi, farmer and labourer Satinder Sharma says that food inflation means they can now only stock wheat flour at home, and no other vegetables. "When we have roti, we have no salt. When we have salt, we have no vegetables," he said. 

Most of those NDTV spoke to say they receive subsidised food grains under the Public Distribution System (PDS), which amounts to 5 kg of rice, wheat and coarse grains at Rs 1-3 rates per person per month. In fact, Uttar Pradesh is doing better than the national average in ensuring that rural households are covered under the PDS, according to a NITI Ayog report.

However, even this falls short because the prices of all other ingredients that make for a nutritious meal have also shot up. 

In the local market at Hardoi district's Bawan, vegetable and grocery vendors say people are buying less. Vegetable vendor Shoukat Ali says that sales have been cut in half. While he used to sell vegetables worth about Rs 2,000-4,000 in a day, these days he sells goods worth only Rs 1,000-2,000, he says.

It is not just vegetables that have been hit. Average monthly retail prices of moong dal in Lucknow rose from Rs 75 to Rs 89 between December 2018 and December 2019. Masoor dal rose by Rs 2 to Rs 62.

A grocery store shopkeeper, Vinod Kumar Shukla, said that they have started procuring less pulses stocks because it is not being sold anymore.  "We used to stock 30 kg of dal earlier. Now we stock 15-20 kg for a month. We sell it 100-200 gm at a time now. Nobody buys in kilograms anymore," he said.

The problems caused by the food inflation are compounded by a slump in the growth of rural wages, which dropped from 6% in October 2016 to just 3% in October 2019.

Children have also not been spared by the pincers of hunger and rising prices. Ram Chiraiya, Sharma's wife, says that they now feed their three-year-old daughter Rama only twice a day. The meals consist mainly of rotis. 

"When we have potatoes, we give her that. When we don't, we give her roti with chutney," said Chiraiya. Milk is no longer a part of her daughter's diet.

In Azmat Nagar village, Binay, an unemployed labourer, also feeds his five-year-old son, Sonu, a similarly frugal meal of rotis, potatoes and rice. "We can't eat three times a day.  We are poor and things are too expensive. We feed the child also twice a day. When we eat, he eats," he said.

"Of course our hunger isn't satisfied. But who do we scream at? Where will I bring food from? Hunger isn't satisfied. But what can we do?" asks Ram Prakash.

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