By Nirbhay

If you're not living under a rock, you must have heard of India’s dismal performance on the Global Hunger Index. Before talking about India's rank, it is an absolute must to understand what the Global Hunger Index (henceforth GHI) entails and what it does not.

What Is The GHI

The GHI combines four indicators:

  1. Proportion of undernourished as a percentage of the population: please note here that undernourishment is a measure of the proportion of the population with inadequate access to calories and is based on data which directly relates to food supply of the country. It is not a measure of weight and height.
  2. Wasting: percentage of children under 5 who have low weight for height
  3. Stunting: percentage of children under 5 who have low height for age
  4. Under 5 mortality rate

Let us also note that the GHI is peer-reviewed by external experts and that the methodology has long been established and tested. The international community- including India - has agreed upon the SDGs (sustainable development goals) and the GHI uses indicators that are part of the indicators which measure progress towards the SDGs.

India’s GHI Performance

India ranked in the worst 16 countries this year – 101 out of 116 countries. Last year, the picture was the same – we ranked 94 out of 107 countries - behind Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Our GHI score has gone up very slightly since last year, from 27.2 to 27.5.

India’s Own Data

Before we jump to the government’s response to the GHI data, let us look at other relevant data from our own country.

  • The latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) shows that 4 key metrics for the nutritional status of children declined in 2019-20 compared to 2015-16 in many of the 22 surveyed states.

The National Statistical Office (NSO) data from 2017-18 which suggested that consumption expenditure had fallen for the first time in 4 decades from Rs 1,501 per month in 2011-12 to Rs 1,446 per month in 2017-18.

Is The GHI “Unscientific” or Based On An “Opinion Poll”?

Indians by now are no longer surprised when the Modi government shamelessly (whether through fake images on social media, fabricated data, or misleading arguments) lies to defend the indefensible. Yet somehow the government surprises us by making each lie worse than the previous one. The government claims that the GHI methodology is “unscientific:” and that the data is based on a “4 question poll..” It would be best to leave it to Miriam Wiemers, Advisor to the Global Hunger Index to tackle this baseless and absurd claim:

“The (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) FAO’s telephone-based opinion indicator — the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) —— is not used in the GHI. The GHI uses the prevalence of undernourishment indicator, which is assessed by FAO using Food Balance Sheet data from each country.”

Does The GHI Fail To Measure Height And Weight?

Next, let us rebut another claim that the government makes. The government confuses undernourishment with under nutrition. Undernourishment (inadequate calories) is the only indicator where India has performed worse than last year. Undernourishment prevalence rose from 14% to 15.3% between 2017-2019 and 2018-2020. Therefore it is not a surprise that the government singled out this indicator. Ministry of women and child development foolishly said that instead of relying on a poll, the Index should have used measurement of weight and height to calculate the ‘undernourishment’ indicator. This argument could not have been more naive. The GHI already uses height and weight for 2 of its indicators – stunting and wasting. The government seems to be confused between under nutrition and undernourishment. 3 indicators used in the GHI – stunting, wasting and under 5 mortality rate- measure under nutrition (which the government says should be measured). The 4th indicator which measures under nourishment has to do with calories and food supply. Therefore, the government is saying the GHI should measure something it’s already measuring.

Outdated Data

Funnily enough the government accepts the GHI finding that India has been improving on the under 5 mortality rate indicator. So the Modi Government is willing to believe the “unscientific” GHI when the index reports an improvement in performance! The government also points out that in the GHI, India’s performance on stunting and wasting has not worsened. Here, the Government “forgot” to mention that for “stunting and wasting”, the GHI has used the same data that it used last time - data from NFHS 4, so naturally there is no change in performance. In fact, the NFHS-5 found that stunting among children below five did not improve at all but wasting worsened in most of the surveyed states and Union Territories since NFHS-4.   

Steep Fall in Budget For Child Nutrition Under Modi

  • Economist and activist Jean Dreze points out that Budget allocation for the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme is 40% lower in real terms to what it was several years ago. In real terms, the central allocation for ICDS is also lower today than it was six years ago.
  • In 2020 Dreze had pointed out that the central budget for mid-day meals (Rs. 11,000 crore) is lower than what it was in 2014-15 (Rs. 13,000 crore).
  • Poshan Abhiyaan, the NDA government’s flagship programme for child nutrition which it constantly keeps boasting about, has a minuscule budget of Rs. 3,700 crore.
  • Compared to Rs. 30,000 crore allocated to the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2020-2021, this financial year, the allocation is down by almost 20% i.e., around Rs. 24,000 crore. This came at a time when even the government itself admitted that India’s routine health services were disrupted (read NHM-HMIS which tracks the utilisation of health services from over 200,000 health facilities).
  • To put things into perspective, each year the government gives a tax cut (to mostly large corporates) of about 5 times the amount that it spends on nutrition and women and child development.

The government (which is a maestro at using red herrings and denials every time it is questioned) claims to be “shocked” at the “unscientific methodology” of the GHI. What it should really be shocked at is the continued and worsening extent of hunger and deprivation in our country under Modi, who claims he is the first PM in 70 years to address India’s chronic problems and bring “good times” to Indians.

India Hungrier