Despite a sense of quiet congratulation in certain circles on India’s relative insulation — at least of its banks — from the global financial meltdown, there’s news that is far from reassuring for the country’s political managers. A team of researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (Ifpri) New Delhi office are the bearers of grave tidings that are significant for the economy.

Photo: Ramesh Pathania / Mint

Of the development indices that have come out of the United Nations System, the most recent is the Global Hunger Index 2008 (GHI). The index, which aims to capture the extent of food deprivation, ranks India at 66 among the 88 countries that it covers. This should worry us sufficiently. However, there is more.

Purnima Menon, Anil Deolalikar and Anjor Bhaskar of Ifpri have extended the methodology underlying this index to a study of India’s states. Their report containing an India State Hunger Index (ISHI) was released in Delhi last week. We now have a picture of the incidence and distribution of hunger across 17 states accounting for 95% of India’s population, and it is not pretty.

These researchers have helped place the extent of hunger across India in a global perspective. To get the full picture, note the GHI 2008 five-level classification of hunger, ranging from “low", “moderate" and “serious" to “alarming" and “extremely alarming". The authors find that not a single Indian state falls in the first two categories, with most of them falling into the “alarming" category and one — Madhya Pradesh — in the “extremely alarming" category. It should surprise many that Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Assam fall into the “serious" category as these have been at the forefront of development, albeit variously defined, in India.

It is not as if these results ought to be taken without a pinch of salt. GHI is an average of three indicators — calorie undernourishment, child (under) weight and the death rate among children under 5 — each given the same weight. The rationale for their inclusion is that they represent the three interlinked dimensions of hunger — inadequate consumption, child malnutrition and child mortality. Mortality itself is seen as “the most extreme manifestation of continued hunger and undernourishment".

Some quibbling is possible over the weightage and some scepticism advanced over the authors’ finding that Kerala is among the most undernourished regions of the country. The latter is counter-intuitive, not only since we know independently that Kerala is among the least poor of the Indian states but also, as according to the authors’ estimates, it has by far fewer underweight children and lower child mortality than the rest of the states.

The high estimate of undernourishment in Kerala weakens the authors’ claim that calorie intake — intuitively the most proximate to hunger — is linked to weight and mortality, the very basis of GHI. We also know that child mortality is related to public health outreach, which is independent of nutrition.

But be all this as it may, ISHI is a valuable contribution to a crucial evaluation of where the Indian economy stands today and the direction that national economic policy should now take. This is facilitated by the authors’ demonstration that in a cross-country comparison, India has more hunger than warranted by the level of its income.

In particular, we find the index for India is higher than that for several economies of sub-Saharan Africa which have a lower per capita income (some significantly so). Now, the prevalence of hunger in India cannot be put down to the level of income or even some definition of “national capacity". The distribution of income is crucial here. This is confirmed by the authors’ additional finding that growth per se does not eliminate hunger.

No clear relationship emerges when state-wise income growth over the previous five years is compared with the level of hunger. For instance, states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat that have had high growth recently turn in a high ISHI. Of course, it may be argued that we are seeking the impact of growth over too short a period, but it would not necessarily be counter-intuitive to conclude that something more than just aggregate economic growth may be required. The finding of widespread hunger in India, when measured by a globally applicable yardstick, points to the need to reorient radically the focus of our policymaking.

Over the past 15 years, economic policy has been focused on integrating India with the rest of the world via trade liberalization. It has been characterized by an eagerness to benchmark India with global standards of “economic freedom" meaning freer markets. While the latter is not necessarily always undesirable, economic policy has systematically neglected the foundational weakness of the Indian economy, which is the failure to produce food cheaply.

Food remains expensive in India by international standards. A simple indicator of this is that the average per capita expenditure on food in India accounts for at least 50% of a household’s income, while in the US today it is less than 10%.

At least since 1991, Indian policymakers have mostly failed to appreciate that what lies behind the rise of the West is the sustained original revolution in the production of food. Cheaper food is the lever of riches, for it releases purchasing power and makes industry and services flourish. Instead, policymakers focus exclusively on the “economic regime", represented in their minds by the degree of government intervention in the economy. Note the hoarse exhortation to usher in capital convertibility, which only a year ago had found a supporter in our economist Prime Minister, but in the light of recent events must count as the policy that dare not be spoken of.

Rather than respond with cries of “shame" or “tragedy" India must see these findings on hunger as an opportunity to eradicate it and to release the forces of potential demand.

From an economic point of view, allowing hunger to persist is a no-brainer.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is an independent economist. His writings can be accessed at Comment at