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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  A tale of two indices in this age of economic contrasts
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A tale of two indices in this age of economic contrasts

The Global Hunger Index and UNDP’s Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index have both indicated a need we cannot overlook: to speed up progress on ending deprivation in India.

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Photo: Mint

Earlier this month, two cross-country comparisons on indicators of multi-dimensional poverty and hunger were released by international organizations. Both these are annual series which are brought out by reputed institutions. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is available from 2006 and tracks the progress of countries in eliminating hunger. The second report, by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), presents a Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) for 111 countries. Both these agencies use publicly available data sets, but different indicators of the data available from the respective country surveys. In the case of India, the primary data source is the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) which is conducted under the aegis of the Union ministry of health. This is a nationally representative survey, of which the fifth round (NFHS-5) was conducted in 2020-21.

The methodology used for calculating the MPI is also used by the Niti Aayog in New Delhi to release national MPI figures for states. The last national MPI report by the Niti Aayog had used the NFHS-4 for 2015-16.

According to the latest UNDP report, 140 million people in India moved out of poverty between 2015-16 and 2020-21 compared to 275 million between 2005-06 and 2015-16. The MPI uses several indicators of deprivation, such as access to sanitation, drinking water, electricity, clean cooking fuel, education, child mortality, nutrition, housing and so on. The broad numbers confirm that our progress on these indicators is on similar lines in both periods, with marked acceleration in access to sanitation, electricity and cooking fuel driven by government efforts in these areas. The results are not surprising, although these are at variance with estimates of poverty based on money-metric measures of income or consumption, which show a mixed trend.

The GHI, on the other hand, uses different indicators of child nutrition along with data on prevalence of undernutrition from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). All of these are in the public domain and readily available. According to the GHI, India’s index reading declined from 38.8 in 2000 to 28.2 in 2014, but increased marginally to 29.1 in 2020. Given the high level of malnutrition in the country, as brought out by successive NFHS surveys, these estimates are not surprising. According to NFHS, among major 22 states (excluding smaller states), seven states have reported an increase in stunting among children between 2015-16 and 2020-21, as against not a single state which showed an increase in stunting between 2005-06 and 2015-16. For some of India’s large states, improvement in stunting is negligible.

However, unlike the MPI, which has officially been accepted by the Niti Aayog, the GHI release was met with a quick rejoinder from the government questioning the methodology of the report. Unfortunately, this rejoinder was almost the same as the one it had issued last year accusing the GHI report of being based on opinion polls. The criticism is clearly invalid, given that the report presents the methodology clearly with no mention of opinion polls as a method of calculating the GHI. While it fits in with a pattern of attempts by government agencies to discredit data that’s inconvenient for the Centre’s narrative, as we saw with employment surveys and the consumption survey of 2017-18, the country happens to need an informed debate on crucial issues raised by these reports.

The issue is not about the merits of the methodology used by these reports by external agencies, which are bound to be problematic given the need to use estimates consistent across countries. Unnecessary noise over our ranking, while useful, however, diverts attention from the key issues which both reports have raised.

While there has been considerable improvement in access to various services such as sanitation, drinking water, electricity and so on, it is also a fact that India’s fight against malnutrition has not been stellar. This is evident from the NFHS data that has been produced by the government, but is also implicit in both the global reports. It was also evident from the junked consumption survey of 2017-18 which reported a decline in real food expenditure in India compared to the previous round of the same survey.

The real issue of slow improvement in nutrition and worsening food security requires informed debate. More so because India’s economy has been going through a period of slowdown and pandemic-related disruptions. With inflation further eroding the purchasing power of a majority of the poor, a threat to food security is no longer imaginary. Both these reports also raise the far more serious issue of India’s choice of strategy to fight chronic malnutrition. It is clear that success in increasing access to sanitation, drinking water and electricity may have contributed to reducing multi-dimensional poverty, but these appear to have limited impact in combating malnutrition. This fight will also require increasing incomes for the poorest along with strengthening direct interventions such as the Integrated Child Development Services and mid-day-meal schemes, both of which suffered due to pandemic-led disruptions. The performance on both these has been less than satisfactory. A resolution of the problem can only begin with the government’s willingness to face inconvenient truths rather than discredit survey data pointing to its existence.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi 

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Published: 20 Oct 2022, 10:49 PM IST
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