Let us not lose sight of India’s hunger problem

Rather than nitpick on methodology or sample size, let us step back and examine the basic premise. Photo: Mint
Rather than nitpick on methodology or sample size, let us step back and examine the basic premise. Photo: Mint

Summary

  • The Centre’s rejection of India's latest GHI ranking does not obscure the challenge we face.

For the second year in a row, India’s government has rejected the Global Hunger Index (GHI) ranking published by two international organizations: Concern Worldwide, an aid agency, and Welthun-gerhilfe, a non-profit entity, based, respectively, in Ireland and Germany. Their annual GHI report, which is peer reviewed, has been published for the past 17 years. India was ranked No. 107 out of 122 countries, below Bangladesh (at No. 84), Nepal (81), Pakistan (99) and Sri Lanka (64). Last year, India was No. 101 out of 116 countries. The government’s petulance stems from two reasons. One is that three of the four metrics forming the index use malnutrition data on children, i.e. wasting, stunting and premature mortality. Only one of the four metrics is on malnourishment, not malnutrition, and not even hunger. So how can the index based mainly on data for children be representative of the entire population? The second objection is about the sample size, which is 3,000. That is too low and not representative, according to the government. Some in government have even attributed mala fide intent to the publishers, who they say are more keen to taint India’s image than publish objective statistics. This is unfortunately becoming a routine ploy of discrediting adverse reports by either blaming the messenger or mongering conspiracy. This certainly won’t help, and India seems to be the only country upset about the GHI scores.

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Rather than nitpick on methodology or sample size, let us step back and examine the basic premise. Does India have a hunger problem? How do we answer this question, which is about a human predicament. Can we ask people if they are hungry? This approach was actually undertaken by the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) around 30 years ago. Rather than only depend on consumption surveys to estimate calorie intake, and thus hunger, the surveys started asking the question, “Did you get two square meals a day?" Even back in 1993-94, 94.5% of respondents answered in the affirmative. That number rose to 99% by 2009. This one response was often used by the camp opposing so-called “povertarians". How could India’s poverty and deprivation be so high when almost the entire sample says they get two square meals. This was the period when as per the NSSO data, India’s headcount poverty rate was still as high as 25% or 30%. Surely the calories intake-based poverty ratio was overestimating the actual extent of hunger and deprivation. Some economists said that India had a malnutrition problem and not a hunger problem. A debate raged furiously on other aspects of the methodology, including the recall period, the over-sampling of poorer sections and a wide disparity between aggregate consumption spending as estimated by NSSO and national income accounts. Not surprisingly, there was a tome published, edited by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, called Data and Dogma: The Great Indian Poverty Debate in 2005.

To a lay person, the distinction between hunger, malnourishment and malnutrition might sound too pedantic. The first is a sensation and is caused by inadequate calorie intake and is the same as malnourishment, whereas malnutrition is the inadequacy either in the quality or quantity of food, or in the balance of micronutrients. It is a specific case of a wider phenomenon of undernutrition. This latter phenomenon is a fact. India’s own National Family Health Survey (NFHS) has revealed that one-third of Indian children are wasted (underweight) and 35% are stunted (low height for age). In the state of Jharkhand, these numbers were as high as 48% and 45% in 2015-16, as per NFHS data. In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, as per the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the share of hungry people in the world declined by 11%, but in India the decline was only 8%, thereby indicating a less-than-average performance. The FAO’s estimates in 2022 also indicate high prevalence of hunger and undernourishment based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) survey. It is this survey that the government thinks is not representative owing to a small sample size. But how can one deny the persistence of undernourishment if not hunger? Maybe ‘hunger’ is a feeling, and an undernourished person may not ‘feel’ hungry. But this would just hiding behind the semantics of it.

Let us not lose sight of some macro facts. First, India has been running a free food grain distribution scheme for 33 months for 810 million people. Surely, that is because of a felt need for food security. Second, while wheat and rice consumption has increased, the per capita availability of pulses has declined from 25 kg to 17 kg in the past 60 years. Consumption, too, has stagnated. Third, the per capita consumption of milk is below the world average and eggs are being banned in the mid-day school meal scheme in some states. These are important sources of proteins and nutrients which should not be ignored in light of the high prevalence of anaemia among children (67% as per NFHS) Fourth, the various food and nutrition-related programmes run by governments at all levels, whether as cooked food in subsidized Amma canteens or in Anganwadis or for pregnant or lactating mothers or in community kitchens, are stark reminders—if any were needed—of the persistence of hunger. India’s five foundational principles include Sarvodaya (welfare of all) and Antyodaya (welfare of the last person). The latter means that even if one person goes hungry, our work is unfinished, whether we agree with our GHI rank or not.

*Ajit Ranade is a Pune-based economist.

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