Image for representational purpose only. ( File | EPS)
Image for representational purpose only. ( File | EPS)

When will we admit our children are going hungry?

Global Hunger Index puts India at 101st rank on a list of 116 countries

While India was busy tracking the bail application of Aryan Khan in Mumbai and Yogi Adityanath’s campaign to lock up ‘anti-nationals’ who supported the Pakistan cricket team, the dismal findings of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) was lost amidst the local brouhaha. 

The hunger index placed India at an unflattering No.101 in a list of 116 countries, belying government claims that the country had made solid progress with a multitude of nutrition programmes. There is some consistency in the abysmal show. In 2019, we were 102 in the list. Now, India’s ranking has slipped 6 slots from 94th in 2020, though the authors warned that the “GHI scores, rankings, and indicator values are comparable only within each year’s report, and not between different year…”

However, the report made no bones about the poor state of health of India’s children. “With a score of 27.5, India has a level of hunger that is serious,” says the introduction to the report, brought out annually by German NGO Welthungerlife (WHH) and an Irish aid agency, Concern Worldwide. India was lower in rank to all its immediate neighbours including Pakistan and Bangladesh, with the exception of Afghanistan. In contrast, 18 countries scored less than 5 (the lower the score, the better the performance), which included Brazil, Kuwait, and China. 

Soumyadip Sinha
Soumyadip Sinha

Side-stepping the report
Unfortunately, instead of examining where it had strayed, the Union government has chosen to divert the issues. 

A statement from the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development said the “scientific measurement of undernourishment would require measurement of weight and height, whereas the methodology involved here is based on Gallup poll based on pure telephonic estimate of the population.”

It also accused the authors of completely disregarding the “government’s massive effort to ensure food security of the entire population during the Covid period.” In its reply, the German NGO WHH rubbished the government claim pointing out that data collection was not based on a Gallup opinion poll; instead, all undernourishment data is measured using data officially presented by the Indian government to the UN. 

On the charge of ignoring food support by the government, Miriam Weimers, advisor, Global Hunger Index, said: “The Global Hunger Index is not a tool designed to assess and reflect individual measures taken by governments....”

It is not that India has not made any progress on child nutrition. The Hunger Index authors acknowledge: “Since 2000, India has made substantial progress…India’s GHI score has decreased from a score of 38.8 points — considered alarming — to a 2021 GHI score of 27.5 — considered serious. The proportion of undernourished in the population and the under-five child mortality rate are now at relatively low levels.”

However, the report underlines the areas of concern. “While child stunting (children who have low height for their age) has seen a significant decrease — from 54.2% in 1998-1999 to 34.7% in 2016-2018 — it is still considered very high. At 17.3% — according to the latest data — India has the highest child wasting rate (children who have low weight for their height).”

Govt data too is a pointer
Joining the debate, Siraj Hussain and Jugal Mohapatra, in an article in ‘The Print’ point out that the government’s own data — the National Family Health Survey — released in December 2020, cooroborate that overall malnutrition has worsened. 

Though the findings are preliminary since data for UP, Punjab, Jharkhand and MP have not yet been released, “stunting, reflective of chronic malnutrition, has increased in 11 out of the 17 states surveyed. Wasting, indicative of acute malnutrition, has also increased in 13 of these 17 states. Such malnourished children are more vulnerable to illness and disease.”

If anything, the Global Hunger Index is an understatement as it does not capture the economic impact — the crisis of migration, the loss of jobs and income induced by the lockdown — related to the months of raging pandemic. In July, the United Nations estimated that global food insecurity in 2020 had been the worst in 15 years as normal, healthy diets had become out of reach for about one-tenth of the world’s population. The projections for 2021 are worse as commodity inflation and disrupted supply chain networks have sent food prices through the roof.

India too knows hunger well. It is estimated 196 million people are undernourished, and malnutrition is the top cause of death and disability. And here lies the rub. India has also the highest levels of excess food grains, and it is struggling to warehouse the surplus and find export options. 

As on 1 October 2021, the central pool of rice and wheat was 816 lakh tonne, against the norm of maintaining a maximum buffer of 308 lakh tonne. Several economists have pointed out that rather than using the excess stock to make ethanol, the government should issue emergency rations, either free of cost or at half the controlled cost to the most vulnerable. Instead of its ostrich-like approach to criticism, it is high time the government acted before things get worse. 
 

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