Home / Opinion / Views /  Global Hunger Index rating should shock us into a policy review

The recently published Global Hunger Index has lowered India’s global rank from 101 out of 116 countries in 2021 to 107 out of 121 in 2022. This places India below all South Asian countries other than Afghanistan, and also below several poor African countries such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo.

This led to a political firestorm on social media, with the government’s Press Information Bureau issuing a rejoinder on its twitter handle hinting at some conspiracy as “a consistent effort is yet again visible to taint India’s image as a Nation… misinformation seems to be the hallmark of the annually released Global Hunger Index …(which is) an erroneous measure of hunger and suffers from serious methodological issues. Three out of the four indicators used for calculation of the index are related to health of Children and… the fourth and most important indicator estimate of Proportion of Undernourished (PoU) population is based on an opinion poll conducted on a very small sample size of 3000."

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We must acknowledge that people may have some motive for articulating particular views. But we need to steer clear of such motives. Nothing becomes right or wrong just because the motive for it is malicious or virtuous. Motives are red herrings. We need to concentrate on the substance of what has been said, as this needs to stand on its own feet.

One can think of three separate ways to view the Global Hunger Index on its merits, namely at the level of theory, at the level of methodology, and at the level of Indian peculiarities. Let’s take up these three levels in turn.

Theory: It is undoubtedly true that India has for some time been one of the fastest growing economies globally. It has also taken rapid strides in food production. It has large stocks of foodgrain that induced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to make an offer recently to supply food to the world if the World Trade Organization were to permit it.

Economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, historian of the Bengal Famine of 1943, would however be unfazed by these apparent anomalies because poverty and hunger are distributional and not food availability issues. In his formulation, there is a clear difference between what he called ‘means generation’ (increasing the size of the cake through economic growth) and means usage (how the cake is distributed). He was critical of Indian policy after Independence for generating the means (through focusing on growth) but not following up by using it adequately to combat poverty and hunger. The poor budgetary allocations for social infrastructure over the years only serves to underscore this.

Sen found this odd because India was a democracy where you would expect popular pressure for accelerated reduction of poverty and hunger. Sen’s takeaway was that democracy was more successful in preventing famines than in addressing endemic hunger and poverty. Nevertheless, since neighbouring countries fare better on the Index’s chart, this raises some substantive questions about the nature of Indian democracy. Democracy, after all, is more than just periodic use of the ballot box.

Methodology: The index is about 20 years old and is based on a set of constant indicators. All indices have flaws, including the basic indicator of calculating GDP, based as they are on limited data selection and samples. The directional shifts over time are nevertheless meaningful. The argument that there is little merit in using malnourishment and stunting of children as indicators of hunger is not persuasive. Measures of hunger and poverty are moving away from caloric consumption to nutrition. Moreover, a fourth indicator has also been used. Are the sampling techniques used for the fourth measure adequate? There can of course be differences of opinion on the issue, but it is unlikely that international organizations that make these widely used indices did not consult reputable statisticians while devising sampling techniques.

Indian peculiarities: It is argued by some that the Index does not take into account the fact that India is a predominantly vegetarian society. The Indo-Gangetic plains are a cradle of vegetarianism. While ritual vegetarianism in India is primarily an upper-caste phenomenon, per capita meat consumption data reveals that Indians are mostly vegetarian, although they occasionally eat eggs, chicken, fish, mutton, beef, pork, etc. In most parts of the world, meat is part of people’s daily diet. Child wasting and stunting can possibly be traced to imbalanced vegetarian diets and animal protein deficiencies rather than energy deficits. Our food production and subsidy data (for wheat and rice) also buttress the case for nutritional deficiencies.

The unfortunate fallout of such politically charged debates on global indices such as the Global Hunger Index, Global Freedom Scores, World Press Freedom Index, Democracy Index, V-Dem Index, etc, is that policymakers end up expending their intellectual energies on worsting the indices rather than using the data as valuable inputs for policy corrections, such as in the case of nutritional deficiencies. Ironically, the same policymakers highlight global indices that show us in good light. Indeed, conscious efforts are made to devise ways to game these metrics. They seem more concerned about the country’s international image than the well-being of those for whom they are tasked to formulate policy. The findings of the Global Hunger Index 2022 should shock a democracy into a policy review at the very least.

Alok Sheel is a retired Indian Administrative Service officer and former secretary, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.

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