Hunger is real, do not mock it   

They are funded by the EU, USAID, Irish Aid and the UK government, all donors with stringent compliance requirements for the use of funds.
(Express Illustrations | Amit Bandre)
(Express Illustrations | Amit Bandre)

The Union minister for women and child development, Smriti Irani, dismissed India’s abysmal ranking on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) at a recent event. In the GHI’s latest rankings, India is at 111 out of 125 countries, below even poorer neighboring countries. Irani claimed that the index is created by “calling 3,000 out of 140 crore people and asking them if they are hungry”. She joked that if someone called her after a long day of work and asked if she was hungry, she would also say, “Oh yes, I am.” Her audience of well-heeled Indians laughed, perhaps an indication of how cut off India’s wealthy are from the difficult lives of hundreds of millions of Indians, toiling away for subsistence and a marginally better life. But is the minister right to portray the GHI as a useless indicator of India’s food security status or is she being disingenuous, promoting complacency about the well-being of Indian children?

At the outset, it is important to debunk Irani’s falsehood about the GHI. The GHI is a peer reviewed composite index jointly published by Concern Worldwide, an Irish aid agency, and Welthungerhilfe, a German non-profit, non-governmental aid agency. The indicator comprises four components which are weighted and combined to create the GHI score. The components and their share in the index are undernourishment (one-third), child stunting (one-sixth), child wasting (one-sixth) and child mortality (one-third). Data for these indicators are taken from various multilateral agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UNICEF, which typically obtain data from governments, including the Indian government.

Do indices like the GFI unfairly target India, as some conspiracy theorists may have you believe? The GFI and its creators are far more transparent than the PM CARES fund. Concern Worldwide has been working on issues of health, education, climate change and gender equality across the world. They are funded by the EU, USAID, Irish Aid and the UK government, all donors with stringent compliance requirements for the use of funds. Their website provides detailed accounts of all their income and spending including the pension paid to the CEO. The second institution, Welthungerhilfe, works on agriculture and food policy to end hunger in the world. It counts the German President as its patron. These are hardly the type of institutions that are out to get India.

Now that we know a bit more about the GHI, let us turn to its latest findings. More Indians are hungry, malnourished, as per the GHI of 2023. India’s rank of 111 is based on a score of 28.7, placing it in the index’s ‘Serious’ category. Only two other categories, ‘Alarming’ and ‘Extremely Alarming’, are worse than the category India finds itself in.

However, India has not always witnessed a declining position in the GHI. Since 2000, India has seen consistent improvement, with its score progressing from 38.4 in 2000 to 35.5 in 2008 and 29.2 in 2015. However, from 2015 to 2023, India’s progress has stagnated while many others have improved. As the data shows, India saw its most substantial improvement during the UPA-II era, when the country saw an improvement of over 6.3 points, whereas, since 2015, in the NDA era the country has only improved by 0.5 points.

India also continues to perform dismally relative to its neighborhood. We are the only country other than war-torn Afghanistan that has fallen in its rankings from 2015 to 2023. Meanwhile, every other country in the neighborhood has seen visible improvements in their respective rankings such as Pakistan (108 to 102), Nepal (78 to 69), Sri Lanka (68 to 60), and Bangladesh (96 to 81).

As expected, the government disparaged the index, calling it “an erroneous measure of hunger with serious methodological issues and shows a mala fide intent”. The ministry of women and child development stated that three of the four indicators used to calculate the index are about children, which cannot be extrapolated to the larger population. GHI in its response observed, “Three out of four indicators used in the calculation of the Global Hunger Index relate primarily to children because children are particularly vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies.”

GHI uses data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) on stunting and wasting for calculating the GHI score. In March 2022, Irani shared NFHS data with the Rajya Sabha on child malnutrition; according to the data she presented, 31 percent of India’s children are stunted, 17 percent are wasted and 32 percent are underweight. It is the data provided by Irani.

Now what about the famous telephone survey that Smriti Irani joked about? The telephone interview conducted by Gallup, a reputable polling firm, is a small component of the GHI score used to calculate only the undernourishment part which is a third of the indicator. GHI uses the UN FAO’s food balance sheets which are based on the per-capita availability of food, calorie requirements of the population based on the distribution of age, sex of the population. To calculate the calorie intake of the population official consumption surveys of the government are used. In India, the last consumption survey was published in 2011 and hence the Gallup World Poll was used for more recent data.

Comparing her own eating habits with actual hunger experienced by millions is an extremely insensitive statement for a minister to make. A government that does not conduct a basic census, that hides inconvenient data, and that has introduced some of the biggest opaque fundraising schemes such as electoral bonds and PM CARES is doing a disservice to the country. The government ignores India’s poverty and hunger at its own peril.  (Views are personal.)

Navika Harshe

Research Coordinator, All India Professionals’ Congress

Salman Soz

Deputy Chairman, All India Professionals’ Congress

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