EPW Editorial

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020, which ranks India 94 among 107 nations, has once again brought to the fore the government’s failure to provide adequate food to a substantial segment of the population despite rising stocks of cereals.

The GHI—which captures three dimensions of hunger, including undernourishment of the people, child undernutrition and child mortality—uses four indicators, namely the share of people with insufficient calorie intake, share of children below five years with low weight to height ratio (wasting) and low height for age ratio (stunting), and child mortality rates to measure hunger. What makes India’s low GHI ranking especially rankling is that it is lower than that of its neighbours like Pakistan (ranked 88), Myanmar (ranked 78), Bangladesh (ranked 75), Nepal (ranked 73) and Sri Lanka (ranked 64). And India’s GHI score of 27.2 is far behind that of the top-ranked 17 nations, all scoring below five, including those of Bric countries like Brazil and China, ranked third and fifth.

Most trends in GHI scores show that the gap between India and its neighbours is increasing in many cases. For instance, the GHI reports for 2000 and 2020 show that India’s GHI score has improved by 0.1% to 27.2, while that of Pakistan has improved by 33.9% to 24.6, and that of Bangladesh by 40.2% to 20.4. And these trends are especially galling for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government as the improvements in India’s GHI scores have decelerated sharply during its tenure. The data shows India’s GHI score improved by 8.2 points, that is, by 21.9%, in the period under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule, while the improvements decelerated sharply by 2.1 points or by 7.2% under the NDA government.

A closer look at the constraints limiting India’s GHI score provides interesting insights. Among the four indicators used by the GHI, India’s biggest gain in the last two decades is in the share of mortality rates of children under five years, which fell by almost two-thirds to 3.7%, followed by the decline in shares of stunted children and undernourished population, which fell by around one-third and by a quarter to touch 34.7% and 14%, respectively. However, despite these gains, India’s share of wasted children even increased marginally by 1.2% over the last two decades to go up to 17.3%.

And the progress under the NDA government has been especially dismal. While the share of undernourished population and wasted and stunted children went down by 17.7%, 24.5% and 19% during the UPA years, the pace of improvement decelerated under the NDA regime with the numbers falling to 14.1%, 14.6% and 10.3%, respectively. It was only in the case of the mortality rate of children under five years that the NDA government has been able to marginally improve performance, with the fall accelerating from 26.8% under UPA rule to 28.8%.

But, then, why is India’s GHI score so poor despite the huge food stocks and the extensive public food distribution network, which is the largest social protection programme in the world, providing subsidised cereals to 800 million people? The answer to this is that government programmes to ensure food security have singularly focused on providing an energy-sufficient diet rather than a nutritious diet or healthy diet. And low per capita incomes make a nutritious or healthy diet unaffordable to a majority of the people. In fact, calculations made by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for India show that an energy-sufficient diet costs $0.79 per capita per day as compared to $1.9 for a nutrient-adequate diet and $3.41 for a healthy diet.

And the FAO data shows that, while the share of India’s population unable to afford an energy-sufficient diet has shrunk to just 0.9%, the share of people unable to afford a nutrient-adequate diet is a large 39.1% and those unable to afford a healthy diet is a much higher 77.9%. This clearly shows that the government has to refocus on food security strategies and roll out programmes to ensure an affordable nutrient-adequate diet in the medium term and a healthy diet in the longer term. This can be achieved only by substantially reworking the food production targets to meet the increasing nutrient needs.

But a government report on food and nutrition security last year clearly shows that the recent changes in the food consumption pattern have only accentuated the nutrient deficiency. Most recent numbers show that among three major nutrients, only the per capita per day consumption of fat is increasing. Both per capita per day energy consumption and protein consumption have declined and intake is still behind the Indian Council of Medical Research-recommended norms in most cases in both rural and urban India.

Similarly, while the share of expenditure on cereals in total food expenditure has declined in both rural and urban areas, the increase in consumption of more nutritive food is rather meagre. While the share of expenditure on milk and milk products, egg, fish, and meat in total food expenditure has gone up marginally by 2–3 percentage points, the spending on pulses, a major source of protein, has almost remained stagnant in both urban and rural areas, while that on vegetables, fruits, and nuts has even declined in rural areas. And the sharper price increases of nutritive foods, like pulses, vegetables, milk, egg, meat and fish, as compared to that of cereals during the decade have also made them less affordable.

Clearly, this calls for reworking the food production strategies and ensuring adequate food to meet the growing nutrient deficiency. This is a huge challenge that has to be surmounted to build a healthier nation and move up the GHI rankings.

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