On 15 October, Welthungerlife, a German non-profit focussed on development and humanitarian aid, and Concern Worldwide, an Irish aid-agency, jointly released the Global Hunger Index report for 2019. The GHI report, first released in 2000, aims “to comprehensively measure and track hunger globally and by region and country.” This year, India is ranked a lowly 102 out of a total of 117 countries—behind Asian neighbours such as Bangladesh and even some of the poorest African nations such as Mozambique.
At first glance, India’s performance is abysmal, especially when compared to the GHI report of 2014 where India was ranked at number 55, ahead of the above mentioned nations. However, this comparison is misleading, as the GHI has changed its methodology twice since then, including the number of countries surveyed for the report—from 76 countries in 2014 to 117. But an analysis of the 2019 report shows that despite the mitigating factor of new parameters, India’s rank ought to send alarm bells ringing. The 2019 report highlights “successes and failures in hunger reduction and provides insights into the drivers of hunger and nutrition insecurity.” The report has concluded that worldwide, the level of hunger and undernutrition “falls on the cusp of the moderate and serious categories.” As per the report’s scoring system, the performance of countries which score above a value of 20.0 is labelled “serious” to “extremely alarming.” Countries whose score is below 20.0 are seen to have done moderately well in tackling malnutrition and undernourishment. In other words, the higher the country’s score, the worse is its GHI ranking. India’s score this year is 30.3—indicating a “serious” level of hunger in its 1.37 billion-strong population.
Five years ago, India had scored 17.8—a significant decline of 6.4 points or 26 percent from its 2005 score. In a brief note titled “Explaining India’s improved GHI score”, the authors of the report wrote, “Since the last undernutrition data became available, the Indian government rolled out and expanded several programmes that targeted a mix of direct and indirect causes of undernutrition.” The 2014 report identified two keys factors that contributed to India’s improved performance—the Integrated Child Development Services program, a government initiative to provide food, education and healthcare to children, and the launch of the National Rural Health Mission, a community-based outreach to deliver essential health services to rural India. The note also credited the United Progressive Alliance government’s pet project, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, for being an “indirect factor” in ensuring that India’s poor have better access to food.
TKA Nair, a former bureaucrat who served as advisor to the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, said that MNREGA had contributed directly to reducing hunger levels in India. “I think MNREGA is not getting as much importance, as much stress, as it should. Strengthening NREGA, and making it demand-driven, as it was originally envisaged, would enable people to get better purchasing power in their hands,” he told me. However, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government, which has been in power since 2014, has had a contradictory approach to the MNREGA. In 2015, Modi had famously described the programme as a “living monument” of the UPA’s failure. But neither did his government scrap the programme, nor did it cut its budgetary allocation—the 2017 budget had the highest outlay for the MNREGA until then.
Siraj Hussain, who formerly served as the agriculture secretary, disagreed with Nair and told me that the status quo of welfare programmes has not changed under the National Democratic Alliance government. “Hunger index captures a number of things including the result of poor sanitation, poor absorption of whatever you are eating, imbalanced diet—all that results in malnutrition,” he said “So NDA has not done anything to touch the National Food Security Act that was enacted by UPA.” In 2013, the UPA government had passed a law that converted all existing food security programmes into legal entitlements, also known as the Right to Food Act.