Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Rural India


Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Rural India was published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington, D.C., in March 2020. IFPRI works to provide research-based policy solutions to sustainably reduce poverty and end hunger and malnutrition. The paper’s authors are the IFPRI researchers Kalyani Raghunathan and Derek Headey, as well as the US-based independent scholar Anna Herforth.

The paper discusses the affordability of nutritious diets in rural India, keeping in mind the country’s high malnutrition levels. It studies rural price and wage data to identify the cheapest means for the Indian population to satisfy dietary recommendations, or the ‘Cost of a Recommended Diet’ (CoRD). By analysing problems in the agricultural sector, the paper assesses the affordability of the CoRD relative to the wages of unskilled labourers. It explores the reasons behind nutritious diets being inaccessible, especially for women.

The publication draws information on food prices and wages from datasets of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation’s National Sample Survey Organisation (now, the National Statistical Office). The information pertains to 24 states, 380 districts and 101 food items, from October 2001 to June 2011. This period marked rapid economic growth in India, along with food inflation and significant policy developments in the rural economy such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) of 2005. (The Act aims to provide 100 days of paid work in a year to India’s rural households.) 

The study employs the 2011 food-based dietary guidelines of the National Institute of Nutrition (a research centre at the Indian Council of Medical Research in Hyderabad) as a key tool to define a nutritionally adequate and recommended diet. It uses state government data on prescribed MGNREGA wages to assess the affordability of nutritious diets for workers.

The 46-page paper is divided into four broad sections: Introduction (section 1), Data and Methods (section 2), Cost and Affordability of Nutritious Diets in Rural India (section 3) and Discussion (section 4).


  1. Data from the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 (NFHS-4) shows that India performs poorly on several undernutrition indicators, with high rates of stunting (38 per cent), wasting (21 per cent) and anaemia (58 per cent) among pre-school students. With 23 per cent of its adult women underweight, and 53 per cent anaemic, the paper notes that India is the world’s largest contributor to maternal and child undernutrition.

  2. India’s nutritional status is affected by ‘basic’ causes such as resource unavailability and the political climate, and by ‘underlying’ causes including inadequate access to food and health services, and an unhealthy environment. Nutritional status is further affected by ‘immediate’ causes including inadequate dietary intake and morbidity.

  3. The ‘Cost of a Recommended Diet’ (CoRD) in India rose sharply after 2007 – a period of global food price inflation.

  4. The paper finds that nutritious diets are highly unaffordable, with 45 to 64 per cent of rural Indians unable to afford the recommended diet.

  5. Despite an improvement in the wages after 2007, recommended diets account for 50 to 60 per cent of male and 70 to 80 per cent of female daily wages. This cost does not take into account individual taste and preferences, or family size, and is based on the cheapest items in each food group.

  6. The study notes that minimum MGNREGA wages cover only a third of the individual cost of a nutritious diet for a worker.

  7. According to the study, “there is a strong nutritional rationale for using agricultural diversification to curb price inflation for nutrient-dense foods.” Also, “diversification can increase access to nutrient-dense food for the rural poor not well connected to the market.” 

  8. The cost of nutritious diets in India increased from 2001 to 2011. In the same period, wage growth for unskilled rural workers outpaced rising dietary costs for both men and women. The paper found that there was substantial variation in food affordability across rural India. This result demonstrates the scope for economic growth to improve diets, and for food policy reforms to reduce the real prices of nutritious foods. The authors also stress on reducing gender inequities and the significance of increasing women’s income.

  9. The report states that a significant challenge for nutrition policies in India is to promote healthy traditional diets, and limit the advertising of and access to unhealthy and processed foods.

  10. India has rapidly rising rates of obesity and related non-communicable diseases. Given that problem and the persistence of undernutrition in India, the report emphasises the urgent need to address the widespread unaffordability of a nutritious diet, and to encourage its consumption.

    Focus and Factoids by Neymat Chadha.

    PARI Library's health archive project is part of an initiative supported by the Azim Premji University to develop a free-access repository of health-related reports relevant to rural India.


Kalyani Raghunathan, Derek Headey and Anna Herforth


International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C.


Mar, 2020