Reports

Hunger levels "serious" in India

Print edition : November 22, 2019

Jian Kisku and his wife Rasodi Hembram outside their village in Dumka district of Jharkhand. Their neighbour Kaleshwar Soren died in November 2018 allegedly because of hunger and non-distribution of PDS food grains. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

Children of a primary school inside the Similipal Tiger Biosphere Reserve in Odisha lining up for their midday meal in 2018. Photo: Biswaranjan Rout

A global report shows that India suffers from serious levels of hunger and food deprivation despite being a major food producer, which indicates a failure to reduce inequality and improve distribution.

In the second week of October, a peer-reviewed global report on hunger and food deprivation marked India’s hunger levels as “serious” along with those of West Africa, “South of the Sahara” and East Africa.

The Global Hunger Index Report (GHI) 2019, an annual report brought out by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, both non-governmental organisations, ranked countries on the basis of child stunting, undernutrition, child wasting and child mortality. Welthungerhilfe describes itself as one of the largest aid agencies in Germany and was set up in 1962 under the umbrella of the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

The GHI 2019 ranked India 102nd among 117 countries for which data were available. India was ranked 100 in 2017. The country’s child stunting rate at 37.9 per cent was the highest in South Asia, and it also had the highest rate of wasting among the countries surveyed.

The GHI methodology and the findings are considered robust as the report relied on data from the World Bank and United Nations agencies such as the U.N. Children’s Fund, the FAO, the World Health Organisation and the U.N.’s Inter Agency Group for Child Mortality, all of which draw information from available government surveys and databases.

The GHI has been tracking and reporting on hunger globally, regionally and country-wise since 2006. All stunting values in the report were taken from original survey reports.

However, in a co-authored article in The Economic Times, NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar wrote that the findings based on the four indicators did not capture the improvements made in the last five years of the Narendra Modi-led government. The authors argued that the rates were greater than the figures in the report of the latest Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (2016-18) commissioned by the Government of India. The CNNS was the first national nutrition survey done for the 0 to 19 years age group.

What the NITI Aayog officials described as “improvements” were actually marginal declines in stunting, wasting and undernutrition rates.

The article did not find fault with the methodology in terms of the selection of the four key indicators as it was similar to the CNNS and the Sample Research Survey (2018). In fact, India’s stunting rate of children under the age of five was 37.9 per cent as per the GHI 2019, 38.4 per cent as per the National Family Health Survey 4 and 34.7 per cent according to the CNNS. Even the estimate for stunting arrived at by the CNNS was marginally higher than that of “South of the Sahara”, where the comparative figure was 34.6 per cent.

India worst in South Asia

In South Asia, where the rate of stunting among children—owing to a combination of low calories and low micronutrient intake—was as high as “South of the Sahara”, India ranked the worst, and its stunting rate was higher than the average figure for the whole of South Asia, which was 37.6 per cent.

“South of the Sahara” in Africa was generally characterised by low agricultural output with the lowest productivity rates in the world. India certainly does not have a problem of low production, while low productivity is certainly a problem.

According to the FAO, India, with its vast ecological diversity, is the second largest producer of rice, sugar cane, groundnut, fruits and cotton in the world. It is the largest producer of milk, pulses and jute and figures among the leading producers of spices, fish, poultry, livestock and plantation crops. After the United States and China, India is ranked as the third largest economy in the world. While the GHI ranking for the U.S. was not available, China was ranked 25th.

The GHI report stated that the wasting level in India was extremely high, at 20.8 per cent, which was the highest wasting rate (defined as children under five with low weight for their height) among countries. Significantly, around the same time that the GHI report was released, the Government of India released the very first CNNS that more or less confirmed the GHI’s findings. In fact, some indicators, like that of the minimum acceptable diet, were comparatively more worrisome in the CNNS when compared with the GHI report.

For example, while the GHI report stated that some 9.6 per cent of children between 6 and 23 months received a minimum acceptable diet, the CNNS revealed that only 6.4 per cent did so. Yet, government officials were loath to accept that India could be worse off than its neighbours such as Sri Lanka (ranked 66th), Nepal (73rd), Bangladesh (88th) and Pakistan (94th). India was worse off than Rwanda (98th) and Angola (100th). Sri Lanka, Rwanda and Angola endured years of civil strife.

Bangladesh, Nepal score better

In South Asia, success stories have been reported from countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal. In Bangladesh, for instance, stunting went down from 58.5 per cent in 1997 to 40.2 per cent in 2011. The interventions that helped make this happen were a combination of rising household wealth and pro-poor economic policies. There was an increase in parental education and improved health and sanitation facilities, all of which influenced demographic factors too, resulting in reduced fertility rates.

Similarly, Nepal’s reduction in child stunting levels from 56.6 per cent in 2001 to 40.1 per cent in 2011 was attributed to increased household assets, maternal education, improved sanitation, and implementation of health and nutrition programmes including antenatal and neonatal care.

While the GHI’s theme for this year is the interrelationship of climate change and hunger, the report underscores the fact that while contributory factors such as conflict, inequality and policies within countries did have an impact on exacerbating or mitigating the effects of hunger, there was a closer interrelationship between poverty and hunger.

While there have been improvements since 2000, political, economic and climatic developments in varying forms had impacted hunger levels and poverty. Spending by governments had increased, but it was still insufficient to meet the 2030 Zero Hunger goal set by the U.N., the report said.

According to the FAO, the prevalence of undernourishment, that is, the percentage of population without regular access to adequate calories, had stagnated since 2015 and the number of people who were actually hungry had risen from 785 million to 822 million. Even in countries with good national averages, the inequalities within their borders allowed for the persistence of hunger and undernutrition.

There were no uniform reasons for the varying levels of hunger and nutrition among countries. Countries that had suffered “regime change” and imperial depredations such as Syria or Iraq were clearly worse off in the hunger rankings compared with how they were before the strife began. In countries such as Yemen, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Nigeria, where conflict played a role in hunger and undernutrition and refugee influx (particularly in Chad), the situation was understandably much worse.

Syria has been under a state of siege since 2011 following attempts to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad-led regime by armed opposition militias aided by Western democracies and has witnessed huge civilian casualties. With a full-fledged civil war in place, nearly 5.7 million refugees fled the country and another 6.2 million have been internally displaced. The country’s agricultural production has been hit severely, causing food insecurity in neighbouring countries too. The under-five mortality in Syria is 1.7 per cent, placing it along with countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Libya, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Countries such as Cuba, ranked first along with 17 other countries, and Venezuela (65th) faced international sanctions and economic embargoes, yet their GHI ranking was much better than India’s. Cuba, in fact, was the worst off, having suffered six decades of U.S. economic sanctions.

There are now attempts by the U.S. administration, as reported in sections of the Western media, to thwart the medical cooperation extended by Cuba to other developing countries.

‘India at a Glance’

According to the FAO’s note on “India at a Glance”, while achieving food sufficiency in production, India still accounted for a quarter of the world’s hungry people and is home to over 190 million undernourished people. “Incidence of poverty is now pegged at nearly 30 per cent. As per the Global Nutrition Report (2016), India ranks 114th out of 132 countries on under-5 stunting and 120th out of 130 countries on under-5 wasting and 170th out of 185 countries on prevalence of anaemia. Anaemia continues to affect 50 per cent of women, including pregnant women, and 60 per cent of children in the country,” said the FAO note on India. The issues were primarily of unequal distribution of wealth, food and other welfare benefits rooted in macroeconomic policies that affected nutritional, dietary and health outcomes and were also responsible for climate change and its effects on food production.

In December 2016, the NITI Aayog itself observed in a report on the public distribution system in India that although the economy had achieved remarkable growth over the last two decades along with a decline in poverty, improvements in nutritional status had not kept pace with economic growth.

Citing National Sample Survey Office data, it said that per capita cereal consumption had declined for both urban and rural populations between 1993-94 and 2011-12. There is little reason to believe that the situation has improved given the current state of the Indian economy characterised by low growth and reduced purchasing power.

Climate change

The GHI 2019 views climate change as part of an outcome of overall human interventions. To that extent, it does not overstate its importance, viewing it as a part of a gamut of policies that need to be addressed.

One of the authors of the GHI report observes that climate change was not so much a biophysical challenge driven by theories of carbon emissions and carbon sequestration but more an outcome of consumption patterns, economic growth and societal choices.

While climate change can explain, in part, sudden floods, droughts and other such natural disasters, it cannot explain structural inequalities of income distribution and wealth disparities. It also cannot explain the fuelling of civil wars in functioning economies, resulting in unmitigated humanitarian crises. There is an increasing realisation now that poor nutritional and health outcomes have a connection with unequal household wealth and poverty, which again are policy driven and purely man-made creations.

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