Home > opinion > How many times can a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) brings out a report called the Global Hunger Index every year. It is what its name implies—an index that captures the extent of hunger in the world. How does India fare on this index? More specifically, how has India done after it liberalized its economy?

The hunger index for India, says the IFPRI, fell from 46.4 in 1992 to 28.5 in 2016. The lower the score, the less the hunger. How good is that performance? Let’s compare it with some other countries.

We’ve done much better than Zambia. Zambia had a score of 47.1 in 1992, only a bit higher than India’s. But its score is 39 in 2016, much worse than India’s. Pakistan’s score was 43.4 in 1992 and it is 33.4 now, so we’ve done better than Pakistan. But should we be scrounging cold crumbs of comfort by comparing ourselves to Zambia or Pakistan or for that matter North Korea and Ethiopia, other countries whose performance on the hunger index is worse than ours?

Instead, let’s look at some of the countries that have done better than us. Take Mali, a country that contains large expanses of the Sahara. Its score was 50.2 in 1992, well above India’s. By 2016, its hunger index was at 28.1, a bit better than India’s.

Take Malawi, a landlocked country in the south-eastern Africa. In 1992, its hunger index was 57.6, far above India’s. By 2016, it was at 26.9, much better than India’s.

Mali and Malawi and Uganda, which too has a better score on the hunger index than India’s, are much poorer than us. In 2015, Mali’s GDP per capita, in purchasing power parity terms, in constant 2011 international dollars, was $2,285, according to World Bank indicators. Malawi’s was $1,113. Uganda’s was $1,717. India’s was $5,730. Let’s also not forget that we have had some of the highest growth rates in the world. Wasn’t it supposed to trickle down and eliminate hunger? Countries that are far from being the toast of international investors have done a much better job of feeding their people.

What about countries nearer home? Look away from China, because even in 1992 its score in the hunger index was better than India’s score in 2016.

Vietnam’s hunger index was 41.5 in 1992, compared to India’s 46.4, while it’s 14.5 now, against India’s 28.5. They’ve beaten us easily, although Vietnam’s per capita income is lower than India’s.

Lao PDR (Peoples Democratic Republic), more commonly known as Laos, improved its score on the hunger index from 52.2 in 1992 to 28.1 in 2016. Laos’s per capita income is also lower than India’s. Cambodia saw its hunger index improve from 45.3 in 1992 to 21.7 in 2016. That too is a much better performance than India’s.

Next door, we have the examples of Bangladesh and Nepal, both countries much poorer than India, which have better scores and ranks on the hunger index. And these countries have done a commendable job without the benefit of record growth rates, without billions of dollars of capital flowing into their stock markets, without any hype. The chart with this article should make us hang our heads in shame.

In the chart, India with a per capita GDP in PPP constant 2011 international dollars of $5,730 in 2015 is placed between Guinea, with a per capita income of $1,135 and Liberia, with a per capita income of $786. The original chart in the Global Hunger Index report found India sandwiched between Tanzania and North Korea.

When did we see the most improvement in India’s hunger index? In the eight years between 1992 and 2000, it went down by 8.2 points.

Between 2000 and 2008, it fell by a mere 2.2 points. And in the eight years between 2008 and 2016, it went down by 7.5 points. It is strange that it fell the least during a time when we had an economic and stock market boom. That raises the heretical question: could there be something wrong with what we mean by development? India’s place in the hunger index shows that economic growth alone is far from enough.

Will we soon see as much attention focused on improving our position on the hunger index as on the ease of doing business index? Since he has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I can’t resist quoting Bob Dylan: How many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry?/Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?

Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets.

Comments are welcome at manas.c@livemint.com

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