Why the government should be worried about India’s global hunger ranking

The Global Hunger Index report of 2019 shows that despite its economic growth, India’s pace of improvement in providing food security lags far behind countries even from sub-Saharan Africa. Rafiq Maqbool / AP
19 October, 2019

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.

The latest GHI report, in fact, underlines sanitation as a crucial factor in maintaining optimum nutrient absorption levels in children. The report employed data from the International Institute of Population Sciences, a Mumbai-based research and training institute for population studies, to state that, “In 2014, the prime minister instituted the ‘Clean India’ campaign to end open defecation and to ensure that all households had latrines. Even with new latrine construction, however, open defecation is still practised. This situation jeopardizes the population’s health and consequently children’s growth and development as their ability to absorb nutrients is compromised.” Ironically, barely two weeks ago, Modi declared that 99 percent of rural India was open-defecation free. But his claim has been contested by multiple independent surveys.

Former diplomat KP Fabian, who served as a permanent representative to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, dismissed Modi’s assertion as bombast. “There has been a certain focus on what gains you publicity,” he said. “You make available dole-outs for women and then the prime minister is photographed with a woman and then you put out a figure of crores.” He told me that the NDA’s programmes—such as the Swachh Bharat campaign which dealt with open-defecation—are “spectacles with little substance.” He added that, “This focus on publicity as opposed to performance is of course a worrying factor.” Fabian went a step further and directly blamed the Modi government for increased hunger levels among the poor. He named demonetisation as one of the contributing factors. “Demonetisation threw out thousands of people from work. They had gone back” to their native homes, he said. “They lost their livelihood,” which had a direct impact on their capacity to purchase food supplies, he told me.

Fabian also cautioned against misinterpretations of the GHI rankings. “They have included more countries in 2016. So the rankings have changed,” he said. “This is a wrong way of looking at the rankings.” However, he too agreed that India being overtaken by countries, which it had outperformed in 2014, is a matter of concern. Another issue is the slow pace of improvement in India. For instance, in 2014, China moved 20 places higher than its previous rank. While India’s index has improved by only between 0.1 to 0.2 points per year, China has jumped by 3.0 to 4.0 points.

All the bureaucrats I spoke to told me that the Modi government’s political insecurities and ideological aims have had a negative impact on the implementation of government programmes that should work towards improving the nutritional health of the population. Fabian said, “Initially, they were not keen to promote MNREGA because it is the previous government’s child. Eventually they came around. But that initial neglect has certainly caused harm.”

The ruling party’s attempts to homogenise religious practices and rituals, as a part of its ideological push towards Hindutva, have also had a debilitating effect on nutrition programmes. According to multiple news reports, children availing mid-day meal schemes, a program to provide lunches to school children, in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states are being deprived of eggs—an established source of nutrition essential to growth. The BJP’s politics has extended to dietary preferences being policed by the state, to placate majoritarian sentiments. Hussain told me that “In some states, in the last five years, they have said that they will not serve eggs. That is not a good policy. Whosoever wants to have eggs should be allowed to have eggs. Governments should not force its so-called upper caste dietary habits on everyone else.”

The union ministry of health and family welfare, the ministry for women and child development and the ministry for consumer affairs, food and public distribution did not to respond to queries on the GHI report, its implications and the government’s future plans.