The publication of Global Hunger Index 2019, which ranks India at 102 out of 117 countries, indicating a widespread prevalence of hunger, has generated a fair amount of controversy. The Indian National Congress has latched on to Global Health Index statistics to pillory the Government while the Vice- Chairman of Niti Aayog has coauthored an article in a national daily debunking the GHI methodology used for calculating ranks and has gone on to claim that India would have ranked 91, had data from the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS), commissioned by the Health Ministry of the Government of India, been used.

However, the learned authors have not re-ranked other countries by using the same methodology. In any case, standing at the 91st rank in the Global Hunger Index cannot be a cause for celebration for a country with the seventh largest economy in the world. The Global Hunger Index ranks countries on the basis of four parameters ~ undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality with undernourishment being calculated for the entire population and the remaining three parameters only for children below five years. According to GHI, 14.5 per cent of our population is malnourished. Our child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8 per cent ~ the highest wasting rate of any country and the child stunting rate, 37.9 per cent, falls in the very high category.

The GHI Report has concluded that in India, just 9.6 per cent of all children between 6 and 23 months of age are fed a minimum acceptable diet. The statistics in the GHI Report and even those put out by the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, are extremely disturbing. Acute malnutrition in children results in lack of physical growth and cognitive skills which would perpetuate poverty and malnutrition in future generations. This year’s Noble Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, have in their book, Poor Economics ~ A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty given an excellent example of what il- effects food deprivation could have for a growing child: “A poor girl from Africa will probably go to school for at most a few years even if she is brilliant, and most likely won’t get the nutrition to be the worldclass athlete she might have been, or the funds to start a business if she has a great idea.”

Unfortunately, this example applies to India as well. Poor Economics is an excellent study of the causes and remedy for poverty and hunger across the world with a focus on Asia and India. Unfortunately, the Government is not much enamoured of Abhijit Banerjee’s economic policies because he was the author of the Nyay scheme of the Congress in the last elections. Ministers have described Abhijit Banerjee as a “leftist” and there has been a sustained campaign on the internet to highlight some aspects of Mr. Banerjee’s personal life with a view to discredit him, regardless of the fact that an application of the simple insights for poverty and hunger reduction, suggested in Poor Economics could be transformative for our country. To the consternation of the Indian public, the Global Hunger Index indicates that our neighbours, Nepal (73), Sri Lanka (66), Bangladesh (88), Myanmar (69) and Pakistan (94), whom we consider a shade below ourselves, have done a far better job of eliminating hunger in their countries.

Our poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index is not a bolt from the blue, we have been consistently ranked near the bottom; we were ranked 103 out of 119 in 2018, 80 out of 104 in 2015, 67 out of 84 in 2011 and 96 out of 119 in 2006. Our underlying GHI scores have also been fairly consistent; for 2010 our score was 32 which has come down only marginally to 30.3 in 2019, in both cases showing the prevalence of hunger on a “serious scale.” Our ranking has worsened because other countries have improved their score over the years. For example, Pakistan’s score has come down from 35.9 to 28.5 between 2010 and 2019 and Nepal’s score has come down from 24.5 to 20.8. Our arch-rival China’s score has come down from 10 to 6.5, taking it into the group of nations with a “moderate” severity of hunger.

In the last decade, many countries in Asia and Africa have made spectacular progress in reducing hunger and are now well on their way to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger in their countries by 2030. The Global Hunger Index Report 2019 prescribes certain measures to combat hunger like supporting and diversifying agricultural production; improving farmers’ access to extension services, resources, and markets; and creating non-agricultural jobs in rural areas; significantly increase investments in rural development, social protection, health services, and education; enacting and enforcing regulatory frameworks to ensure that production of globally traded agricultural commodities does not impede the right to food or infringe on land rights in areas where those commodities are produced.

Interestingly, Union Budget 2019 lists 122 Schemes with objectives almost identical to the remedial measures prescribed by the Global Hunger Index Report. A sum exceeding Rs.12 lakh crore is to be spent by the Union government on these schemes in the current financial year. Looking at the earlier Budgets, we find that most of these schemes have been continued with similar outlays for the last many years. The lack of tangible progress in eliminating hunger and poverty despite humongous expenditure can well be the subject of an enquiry. The Government would be better advised to measure the success of the myriad existing schemes before allocating resources for them in succeeding Budgets.

The bitter anomaly between our economy being the fastest growing in the world with the aspiration of reaching the figure of $5 trillion by 2024 and our rock bottom rank in the Global Hunger Index cannot be more pronounced. According to the India Wealth Report published by Karvy Private Wealth, individual wealth increased by 9.62 per cent in 2018-19 and by 211 per cent between 2000-2015. Surprisingly, this increase in wealth did not lead to any appreciable improvement in our ranking in the Global Hunger Index which would indicate that “trickle-down economics” is not working in our case; the lot of the poor does not seem to be improving while the rich are definitely getting richer. The inescapable conclusion is that better and leak-proof implementation of poverty alleviation programmes and more direct interventions to end poverty and hunger are needed.

I nequality, poverty and hunger are the reasons why crime has burgeoned in our country. Women’s safety has become an issue and we are one of the unhappiest people in the world. Saying that some flaw in our DNA is responsible for these aberrations is itself flawed; hungry, poor and dispirited people cannot make ideal citizens. The Mahatma once said: “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Sadly, the Mahatma’s statement has come true for his own country.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)