Article: Hunger in India: Index & Reality

Dr S Saraswathi

It is not in India’s fortune to remain happy with its achievements for any long time as global assessments go against it in another form. Recognition of Covaxin by the WHO marks an important milestone in India’s pandemic fight– a real feather on its cap —  but the country is not able to rejoice because of its incredibly low rank in Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021, which is a cause for worry and shame. The index is released by a German NGO, Welthungerhilfe annually from 2006 and the International Food Policy Research Institute.

This Index launched on 14 October ranks India, which has scored 27.5, at position 101 among 116 countries in a listof 31 countries where hunger is declared as “serious”. Only 15 countries rank below India. All of India’s neighbours – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – hold a higher rank. Papua New Guinea, and extremely disturbed Afghanistan receiving lot of aid from India closely follow at rank No.102 and 103. Adding insult to injury, the nutritional status of many of our neighbours including Afghanistan is reported to be improving indicating zero negative impact of Covid-19 on these countries.

India’s rank in the GHI is changing from year to year. In 2018, its rank was 55 among 77 nations, 102 among 117 in 2019, and 94 among 107 in 2020. But, it is uniformly very low  though in food  production,  its performance is not bad as it stood second only to China and has achieved grain self-sufficiency. It is among leading producers of milk, cereals, pulses, vegetables, sugarcane, and fish in the world.

UNDP has reported once that nearly 40% of food produced in India go waste due to lack of adequate storage facilities. In fact, India is facing a huge problem of surplus food grain management.  Stock pileup may result from lack of purchasing power also. Needs may remain unfulfilled while supply is adequate or even abundant. The situation causes artificial hunger.

Goal 4 of Millennium Development Goals (2000-15) which set the target of halving percentage of population suffering from chronic hunger was met by India. Yet, it was found that 270 million people of India out of 800 million in the world had not enough food.An estimate given in the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World says that around one-tenth of the global population was undernourished in 2020.

Government has challenged the poor ranking and the methodology used in GHI 2021 as “devoid of ground reality and facts”. It is reported that the Ministry of Women and Child Development in its immediate reaction remarked that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made the assessment by opinion poll telephonically conducted for assessing under-nourishment, which shows considerable deterioration in the condition of India. However, FAO maintains that it has followed a scientific method. The Index seems to have exposed what is termed “hidden hunger” which causes stunting and other physical impairment in dealing with India. In a way this will help India intensify its efforts and push it to the level of advanced nations.

GHI is a tool designed to comprehensively measure and track globally, regionally, and country-wise the prevalence of hunger every year. Food Policy Research Institute calculates GHI scores.  The aim is to create and promote awareness and understanding of hunger in terms of malnourishment and under-five mortality. Three dimensions are covered in the index — inadequate food supply, child under-nutrition, and child mortality.

Index scores are based on the values of four indicators – under- nourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality. The first of these relates to the entire population and the other three to children. The score calculated for each country is classified by severity of hunger as low, moderate, serious, alarming, and extremely alarming.

Child mortality data are provided by the UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality estimation.  Stunting data were drawn from the joint database of UNICEF, WHO, World Bank and many others.

FAO of the UNO defines food deprivation or under-nourishment as the consumption of less than about 1,800 kilocalories a day, which is the minimum that most people require to live a healthy and productive life. Underweight and mortality of children below 5 years are used for estimating undernourishment which signifies deficiencies in energy, vitamins, minerals, etc. A former Director-General of FAO once remarked, “When it comes to hunger, the only acceptable number is 0”. UN Secretary-General launched the Zero Hunger Challenge at the Sustainable Development Conference in June 2012. According to UNDP, India is home to one-fourth of the undernourished in the world.

UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be reached by 2030 set a target of zero hunger based on the premise that freedom and fundamental right to food equality belong to all humanity. Food security is a human right.

Eradicating hunger is linked not only with food production, but equally with distribution, storage, and consumption patterns of food products also. All these aspects have been severely affected by the pandemic in India because of its big size, and large population with many inequities.  The impact of Covid-19 is projected to double the global hunger figure.

As a minimum measure to remove food inequity which is most inhuman condition, the Food Security Act has been adopted in India in 2013,which is implemented through different schemes like the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), the Mid-day Meals Scheme (MDM ), and  the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). Together they reach over one billion people. Poshan Abhiyan has been launched with World  Bank to reduce stunting and anaemia.

UN Food Systems Summit is scheduled to take place this month. One of its aims is to underscore the link between food systems and climate agenda. Encouraging small farmers and small-scale production and eliminating wastage are important.  More than these, storage facilities have to be provided and upgraded since along with hunger index, we witness scenes of food grains of thousands of tonnes rotting under rains for want of storage. The two contrary situations exist side by side, which is a principal reason for our low rank in hunger index.

Wastage of food items is considered a sin in many communities in India, but continues everywhere. In Canada, there is a practice of collecting unused food items from makers and retailers to cook meals for others.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, lack of transportation was the main cause of famines. Today, that is not the case. We have conquered famine, but hunger persists due to lack of required warehousing arrangements and negligence due to apathy and lack of timely planning. It is not the time to criticise authors of the index or impute motives in the choice of dimensions and indicators or calculation of scores. They may be unsuitable to India. Height and weight, for instance, are related to race and climate also.

Any developing country growing fast may have to overcome several kinds of discouragement. There is no doubt that India has to strengthen its storage and distribution mechanism and expand health education programmes to reach everyone with health information. Courtesy The Dispatch