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The release of the Global Hunger Report (GHR) earlier this month has reconfirmed the enormity of the scale of hunger and malnutrition in the country. India has been placed in the bottom quintile of countries ranked on the basis of a Global Hunger Index (GHI). This is not surprising. The GHR is not the first report to flag this problem. But what has surprised many is the response of the government, which ranged from absolute denial of any urgency to tackle malnutrition to vilifying the report for its methodology.

Like any international comparison, the GHI methodology too could be debated, and it is certainly not the most authentic measure of either the level of or trend in malnutrition. Most of these international rankings are based on estimates for each country and suffer from limitations of definition, concept and comparability across countries and over time. At the same time, the criticisms levelled through a public rejoinder by the government are not just incorrect, but also show a tendency to malign and misinterpret any uncomfortable statistics. Its accusation that the GHI is based on a Gallup survey is untrue and anyone who has read the report in detail could have verified this.

The GHI uses four indicators: proportion of the population undernourished, child mortality, and the percentage of children stunted and also wasted. Information on most of these indicators is not available on an annual basis. They are thus estimated via econometric techniques using proxy indicators. For example, the proportion of people undernourished is dependent on the availability and consumption of food, income levels and population structure. It is this indicator that has seen a decline recently. The last consumption survey of the country was in 2017-18, but its findings were junked by the government on spurious grounds. The one before was for 2011-12.

Irrespective of methodological variations, any extrapolation using income and other estimates is likely to suggest a worsening of the situation as far as our undernourished population goes. It is an officially-acknowledged fact that the past five years have seen a sharp economic slowdown, with output contracting last year. Even our data on the real wages of casual workers points to a clear decline in income among the poorest. A recently-released farmer survey also confirms a trend of declining income from crop cultivation. There is overwhelming evidence of a drop in real income for a majority of Indians at the bottom of the pyramid, especially among those engaged in casual work, informal-sector jobs and agriculture. Not surprisingly, our undernourished population determined by the use of income estimates as proxy data is no different from the actual estimates in the junked consumption survey, which showed a decline in real food expenditure for 2017-18 from 2011-12. All of these are official estimates. Any other credible methodology estimating food consumption and undernourishment will also confirm a worsening of undernourishment over the past half decade.

As for malnutrition indicators among children, we now have partial data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) for 2019-20. Compared to NFHS-4 for 2015-16, NFHS-5 data for 2019-20 available for 22 states and Union territories (UT) shows that stunting increased in 13 of the 22 and wasting in 12. As many as 20 states and UTs show one or more counts of child malnutrition worsening between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The 22 states do not include some of our poorest, such as Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where malnutrition rates are high. The GHR only confirmed these trends.

India faces a malnutrition challenge that is not only large but worsening. Even if one ignores the GHR and relies solely on data endorsed and released by the Indian government, the conclusions would be the same. Therefore, the attempt to raise unwarranted questions on the GHI’s methodology not only comes across as juvenile, it also distracts us from the real issue. This response is no different from its earlier attempts to stop the release of employment surveys and its rejection of consumption surveys. But this will not change the ground reality, which by the government’s own surveys points to severe job losses, declines in income and difficulties in accessing essential social protection services after the pandemic struck. It is time for the government to face up to these inconvenient truths and pursue the means and mechanisms needed to improve the situation, rather than try to discredit statistical data.

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

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