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Hungry Kya?

A war of words has followed the release of the Global Hunger Index (GHI), 2022 which ranked India at number 107 out of 121 countries.

DEVENDRA SAKSENA |

A war of words has followed the release of the Global Hunger Index (GHI), 2022 which ranked India at number 107 out of 121 countries. The Ministry of Women and Child Development has claimed that “the Index is an erroneous measure of hunger and suffers from serious methodological issues…. Misinformation seems to be the hallmark of the annually released Global Hunger Index.”

An article by a prominent economist in a pink paper went on to suggest that India’s low rank in the GHI was a ploy to grab eyeballs! On the other hand, Opposition leaders have latched on to GHI, 2022 to criticise the Government. For example, Congress MP KC Venugopal tweeted: “In 2013, India was ranked 63rd in the Global Hunger Index. Now in 2022, we’ve slipped to the 107th position in a list of 121 countries… Is this what Modi meant when he said ‘Na Khaunga, Na Khane Dunga?”

The Global Hunger Index is a tool prepared by European NGOs, Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. Since 2006, GHI attempts to measure and track hunger globally, as well as by region and by country.

The GHI combines four component indicators:

1. the proportion of the undernourished, as a percentage of the population (1/3 value, data sourced from UN FAO).

2. the proportion of children under five suffering from wasting, a sign of acute undernutrition (1/6 value, data sourced from UNICEF, WHO, World Bank, Demography and Health Surveys Programmes)

3. the proportion of children under five suffering from stunted growth, a sign of chronic undernutrition (1/6 value, data sourced from UNICEF, WHO, World Bank, Demography and Health Surveys Programmes)

4. child mortality under the age of five (1/3 value, data sourced from UN Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation). Based on the values of the above four indicators, a GHI score is calculated on a 100-point scale reflecting the severity of hunger, where 0 is the best possible score (no hunger) and 100 is the worst.

A GHI score of less than 10 indicates a low prevalence of hunger, a score between 10 and 20 indicates moderate hunger, a score between 20 and 35 indicates serious hunger, a score between 35 and 50 is considered alarming, and a score above 50 is extremely alarming. The GHI for India has been computed at 29.3, showing the serious prevalence of hunger.

The Government of India (GOI) has questioned how wasting, stunted growth and mortality in children below five can have a direct relation with a hunger for the entire population.

According to the GHI, child stunting and wasting are appropriate indicators because they (a) go beyond calorie availability, consider aspects of diet quality and utilization (b) reflect children’s particular vulnerability to nutritional deficiencies (c) are sensitive to uneven distribution of food within the household (d) are used as nutrition indicators for SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). Even if GOI’s objections are taken as true, we have a large population of unhealthy children, which bodes ill for our future. The most serious objection of the Government is to the method of estimation of the undernourished.

According to the Government: “The report is not only disconnected from ground reality but also chooses to deliberately ignore efforts made by the Government to ensure food Security for the population, especially during the Covid Pandemic.” It is true that the legal right to food security envisaged by the Global Hunger Index, 2022 was provided by the National Food Security Act (NFSA), enacted in 2013.

The annual requirement of food grains under the National Food Security Act and Other Welfare Schemes is about 610 lakh metric tons ~ much less than what is held by the Government in its godowns. But, a man cannot survive by cereals alone. In addition to cereals, micronutrients, green vegetables, fruits and fats are also required for a balanced diet. There may be enough reason to doubt the methodology adopted by GHI, but the fact remains that India is home to around 23 crore desperately poor people, around 16.4 per cent of our population, whose nutrition levels would not be satisfactory since they survive almost wholly on subsidised rations, provided by the Targeted Public Distribution Scheme.

Mention may also be made of a number of Government schemes for hunger amelioration like the Midday Meal Scheme, which provides meals to more than 12 crore children every day, and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), an integrated package of health, nutrition (including supplementary food) and education services for more than 10 crore children up to 6 years of age, as also pregnant and lactating women.

Additionally, we have the National Nutrition Strategy and the National Nutrition Mission, to address the multi-dimensional nature of food and nutrition insecurity, maternity benefit schemes like Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana, and nutrition programmes for the elderly like Annapoorna that provide support, at critical stages of peoples’ lives.

On the other hand, a high incidence of stunting and wasting in children and high child mortality (statistics for which are not in doubt) raise the question: If the nutrition of children, for which so many schemes exist, is not up to the mark, then what would be the state of nutrition for adults, who are only provided with cereals under the Targeted Public Distribution Scheme?

Every year more than one-third of the Union Budget (more than Rs.12 lakh crore in the current year) is spent on social security and hunger alleviation schemes, but results are sub-optimal, to say the least. Probably, the fault lies in the poor implementation of Government schemes that are beleaguered by massive leakages. Also, widespread poverty and inequality limit access to nutritious food; food is available in plenty of markets, but most of our population cannot afford it.

Poor rural households spend more than 60 per cent of their incomes on food but cannot afford foods like pulses, vegetables, milk and fruits. In some States, such as Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, more than 30 per cent of the population lives below the calorie-based poverty line. On the other hand, highlighting the inequality in our society, almost a fifth of our population suffers from obesity.

Wholehearted efforts are required to end hunger and poverty in our country. Currently, the Government procures grains at a high cost from farmers, a large part of which rots away due to a lack of storage facilities. The entire process could be replaced by a well-thought-out income transfer scheme, which would prevent the wastage of food grains, save a lot of money and ensure that the poor can buy edible and nutritious foodstuffs. Also, the National Food Security Act could be implemented in a better way.

In October 2017, while considering a PIL, the Supreme Court observed that “This compliance with the NFS Act is pathetic, to say the least …” adding “It is a pity that legislation enacted by Parliament for the benefit of people should be kept on the backburner by some of the State Governments before us.” Food rights activists protested against 45 hunger deaths in 2018, demanding proper implementation of the National Food Security Act.

The activists alleged that most of these people died as they were denied their rightful food under the Act due to the failure of biometric identification ~ Aadhaar. Coming back to the extreme reactions to GHI, a similar charade is repeated after the release of almost any report, by almost any international body. Highlighting our poor human development, most reports, be it the Environmental Performance Index, or Human Development Index, rate India near the bottom. Such reports are invariably followed by breast-beating and official denials, as also claims that international bodies are conspiring to malign a newly resurgent India.

Sadly, no introspection follows. Probably, the situation can be best summed up by Asar Faizabadi’s famous Urdu couplet, which roughly translates into: “All life, I committed the mistake of washing the mirror, while the dust was on my face.” Contrast the Government’s reaction to GHI with the patronage extended to the Ease of Doing Business Index (EODBI).

Care is taken by the Government to provide a favourable environment for improving India’s rank in EODBI, which is being discontinued by the World Bank, in the wake of allegations of data rigging. Finally, the dilemma of whistle-blowers like the authors of GHI, was well described by Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” (Essential Writings)