Can India's hunger problem be tackled?

In an unequal world there is disparity among people; but one thought ‘hunger’ as a serious problem had not exactly vanished, but it was slowly easing away.

Published: 20th October 2019 07:49 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th October 2019 01:05 PM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Amit Bandre

Express News Service

In an unequal world there is disparity among people; but one thought ‘hunger’ as a serious problem had not exactly vanished, but it was slowly easing away. Not so, reminds the latest Global Hunger Index that has classified India at Rank No.102 among 117 nations. It is indeed depressing to know that India has slipped seven notches from No.95th in 2010, and that our immediate neighbours – Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan – have performed better. 

The Global Hunger Index (GHI), brought out annually by German NGO Welthungerhilfe and an Irish aid agency, Concern Worldwide, reports on hunger and under-nutrition worldwide based on four key indicators – undernourishment, child stunting, child wasting and child mortality. While India improved its score in under-5 mortality rate, its child wasting rate (children who have low weight compared to their height, and is a reflection of undernutrition) at 20.8 per cent was the worst and a huge cause of concern. “It’s child stunting rate, 37.9 per cent, is also categorized as very high in terms of its public health significance,” it said.

ALSO READ | India slips to 102nd rank in Global Hunger Report 2019, behind Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh

It’s not all bad news, as the GHI records that there has been progress especially with a decline in poverty at a global level from 28.6 per cent to 9.9 per cent in 2015. However, climate change, violent conflicts and wars economic slowdowns continue to drive hunger in many parts of the world. 

There have been protests at home from government authorities who point out that India’s size is too big for comparison; that its population is equal to 193 countries. Tangentially, the GHI report too concedes: “Because of its large population, India’s GHI indicator values have an outsized impact on the indicator values for the region.” 

A study on malnutrition among children in India by the NGO Child Rights & You (CRY) showed that of 472 million children (2011 census), a whopping 97 million, or one-fourth, are anemic and undernourished; and that 40 of every 1,000 infants don’t get to celebrate their first birthday. Given that 90 per cent of the development of a human brain occurs up to the age of six years, intervention of the state has to be in these early formative years. However, there are just not enough resources or government effort.

The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) is one of the largest public service schemes in India targeted at children below the age of six years, but it only covers half the country’s population. Even then, the budget allocation for the ICDS scheme declined by 9.6 per cent, from Rs 15,584 crore in FY2016 to Rs 14,862 crore in the following year. 

Even within current parameters, the ‘hunger problem’ can be rolled back. Compared to India’s poor record of child stunting, Bangladesh has scored well primarily due to rising household wealth associated with pro-poor economic growth, gains in parental education, as well as improved health and sanitation factors. Food and nutrition security in rural areas has been a major program in the country, and data from 1996-2011 shows increased rice yields associated with the Green Revolution helped raise calorie availability and boost children’s weight. 

It is not that India has not put programs in place. The National Food Security Act, 2013 was promulgated to provide food and nutritional security at affordable prices. However, it is found that the state does not reach large sections of the people especially marginalized tribes and Dalits, who find themselves ostracized by the distribution system. 

Experiments with micro-intervention have shown that hunger can be tackled with very basic tools. Living Farms, a Welthungerlife partner, working in the hills of Odisha, found ways of improving the well being of rural households by an ‘ecological and sustainable approach to agriculture’. The target is to ‘re-establish the control of these farmers over food and farming systems through the conservation, renewal and rejuvenation of biodiversity.’

GHI’s answer is the government and international groups must intervene more actively to support vulnerable communities and victims of natural disasters and climate change; and health and nutrition support systems have to be reviewed and strengthened. There is a macro-level answer too. The current political climate and social divisions discourage domestic migration, and international migration is mostly illegal as we painfully learn each day. If these barriers are opened, perhaps shifting population and demographic change will offer an answer to the problem. 

In the debate of micro-intervention to alleviate communities from poverty initiated by Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, the macro-answer offered by economist Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development is: remove or reduce barriers to immigration and it will create trillions of dollars of additional income for those from the poor countries. It will also improve the productivity of the rich nations. 


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