The India State Hunger Report 2008, or ISHR, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, or Ifpri—released on 16 October, on the eve of World Food Day—is another grim reminder of India’s failure to combat hunger and malnutrition.
Although the report presents a disappointing picture, it does not provide a correct assessment of hunger and malnutrition across states and for the country as a whole. This is primarily a result of Ifpri’s effort to align the state hunger index to the global hunger index, or GHI. In the process, ISHR has underestimated the true extent of the situation in major Indian states.
GHI is a simple unweighted average of three measures of hunger and malnutrition: proportion of population that does not consume an adequate level of calories, proportion of underweight children less than five years of age and mortality rate among children under five years.
Of these, the last two measures used for ISHR are the same as those used for global comparison and included in GHI. However, the first measure—which is the proportion of population that does not consume an adequate level of calories—is different in the case of ISHR compared with GHI.
GHI has used a measure based on the food balance sheet, or FBS, method of the Food and Agricultural Organisation, or FAO. This is essentially based on the availability of food in the country after netting out net exports, industrial usage and waste from total production. Based on this calculation, GHI has concluded that 20% of Indian population does not get an adequate level of calories.
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The norm for the adequate level of calories used by GHI is 1,820 kilocalories, or Kcal, per person, which is lower than that used by the Indian government—which is 2,400 Kcal for rural areas and 2,100 Kcal for urban areas. However, the cut-off used is same for all the countries which were included in GHI, and the methodology used is also the same.
This, however, is different from the estimate of the proportion of the population not getting adequate calories obtained from India’s household consumption surveys. These not only give different estimates for average calorie consumption, but also show completely different trends over time.
For example, the FBS method for India shows calorie consumption increasing from 2,085 Kcal per capita per day in 1977-78 to 2,494 Kcal per capita per day in 1999-2000. During the same period, calorie intake from consumption expenditure surveys of the National Sample Survey Organisation, or NSSO, show that average calorie consumption declined from 2,370 Kcal per capita per day in 1977-78 to 2,283 Kcal per capita per day in 1999-2000.
Moreover, the extent of under-nutrition based on the FAO norm of 1,820 Kcal per capita per day gives calorie under-nutrition rate of 20% by the FBS method but gives 34% using direct calorie consumption data from the NSSO surveys.
In order to make ISHR comparable with GHI, its authors have used the 20% calorie under-nutrition rate to the directly observed calorie intake data from NSSO. That, in effect, yields a calorie cut-off of 1,632 Kcal per day per capita, which is even lower than the FAO calorie cut-off. Moreover, the cut-off used is 32% lower than the official Indian norm in rural areas and 22% lower than the norm in urban areas.
However, despite under-estimation in hunger and malnutrition due to the use of a much lower norm than is justified, the report shows an alarming situation across states. None of the major states figure in the low or moderate hunger status. With the exception of Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Assam, all other states are in the alarming category, with the situation in Madhya Pradesh being categorized as extremely alarming.
If nutrition standards were not lowered, all of India would have been in the extremely alarming category. Ifpri’s 2007 GHI placed India at 94th place among 118 countries for which the index was calculated. The ranking for child malnutrition is 117, with Bangladesh being the only country with a worse case of malnutrition than India.
These more or less mirror the disturbing trends seen from the last round of the National Family Health Survey, which shows slowdown in improvements on most of the indicators of nutrition.
Unfortunately, this extremely alarming situation has failed to elicit the appropriate response from the government. What is also worrying is the government’s apathy in dealing with existing nutrition support programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme, or ICDS. Despite the intervention of the Supreme Court, there is little political support from the government in ensuring ICDS reaches across the country.
Himanshu is assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi. Farm Truths looks at issues in agriculture and runs on alternate Wednesdays. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org