Why is it reluctant to conduct a household consumption survey?
The Global Hunger Index 2023 has ranked India 111 out of 125 countries with sufficient data to estimate hunger levels, provoking India to once again take exception to the methodology used by the hunger audit and impute “mala fide intent”.
Around mid October each year, two global organisations, Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide, release the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report, which ranks countries according to hunger and undernutrition prevalence levels in the population. For the last two decades, the GHI has been a tool to track hunger at global, regional and national levels. Its main objective is to get governments to take greater notice of hunger levels.
Governments rarely object vehemently to the ranking, which makes India a notable exception. India has been expressing pique at the GHI findings, particularly since 2014 when the Narendra Modi regime came to power. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, through the Women and Child Ministry, has for the second time faulted the ranking, saying the GHI “continues to be an erroneous measure of hunger with serious methodological issues and shows a malafide intent”.
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One complaint is that the GHI does not take into account the government’s initiatives to address hunger. But the GHI is not designed to audit the achievements of governments; it reports things as they stand.
The GHI is calculated on the basis of a set of globally agreed parameters and relies heavily on data in the public domain, supplied by the United Nations and other multilateral agencies. Some of them are international UN bodies such as Unicef, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The countries that met the criteria for inclusion in the GHI report numbered 136, but data were insufficient in 11 countries. Where data were insufficient or original source data were unavailable, estimates were based on the latest data available. Some countries with insufficient data were provisionally designated as showing “alarming” levels of hunger; the report says that had data been available, these countries would have been categorised as “severely alarming” because of the conflict situation prevalent there. This shows that GHI scores tend to err on the conservative side.
The GHI report for 2023 makes certain general observations on global hunger, especially in the backdrop of the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the COVID pandemic preceding it. Years of advancement in reversing or slowing down global hunger came to a standstill after 2015. The “era of polycrisis”, a term used in the report, had affected younger populations disproportionately. The under-25 population comprised around 42 per cent of the world’s population. Regionally, hunger levels in South Asia and South of the African Sahara were found to be among the worst. Hunger levels were either serious or alarming in 43 countries. The report cautions against making year-to-year comparisons. For comparisons over time, the authors suggest that the scores of 2000, 2008 and 2015 can be used.
The scores use four component indicators: undernourishment (proportion of population with insufficient calorie intake), child stunting (proportion of children under five with low height for age, indicating chronic undernutrition), child wasting (children under five with low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition), and child mortality (proportion of children who die before the age of five). These indicators reflect insufficiencies in calorie intake as well as micronutrient deficiencies. By combining the proportion of the undernourished in the population and the indicators on child health, the GHI estimates the food supply situation of the population as a whole and the effects of inadequate nutrition within a particularly vulnerable subset of the population.
The report is peer-reviewed and the indicators are globally recognised because they are part of the indicator set to measure progress towards Sustainable Development Goals, the deadline for which is 2030. One of the goals, SDG 2, is zero hunger; India is a signatory to the commitment.
India’s hunger levels “serious”
India’s hunger levels were rated as “serious”, which means worse than low or moderate hunger but not alarming or seriously alarming. The prevalence of undernourishment seems to have risen between 2015 and 2023, whereas child mortality, though still high, showed decline. The figure for Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU,16.6 per cent) is sourced from the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report 2023 of the FAO; those for child wasting (18.7 per cent) and stunting (35.5 per cent) data are from the National Family Health Survey -5 (2019-21); and the child mortality (3.1 per cent) rate is from the UN Inter-Agency group for Child Mortality Estimations report published in January 2023. The GHI uses the same data sources to calculate country scores, making it possible to rank countries and compare the results.
The PoU takes into account the per capita availability of food through food balance sheets prepared from data officially reported by all countries, including India. The PoU also relies on the distribution of calorie intake in the population estimated through consumption survey data of governments. The latest consumption survey data from India date back to 2011. When governments do not provide such data, the changes in calorie intake in the population are estimated using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) survey data collected as part of the Gallup World Poll. The Indian government has rubbished the Gallup sample size for India (3,000) as too small. The GHI uses PoU values reported by FAO, irrespective of whether governments provide official consumption survey data.
- The Global Hunger Index 2023 has ranked India 111 out of 125 countries with sufficient data to estimate hunger levels, provoking India to once again take exception to the methodology used by the hunger audit and impute “mala fide intent”
- One complaint is that the GHI does not take into account the government’s initiatives to address hunger; the GHI report was also faulted for ignoring the impact of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), which the government stated was the largest food security programme in the world.
- Yet, the government was reluctant to either conduct a household consumption survey or release the findings of the 2017-18 survey, which could have revealed the state of food security or insecurity in the population.
The government was also peeved that the GHI did not use the Poshan Tracker application, which it claimed measured growth parameters in the Anganwadi centres. A statement released by the Press Information Bureau on October 12 said that the Poshan Tracker Application was an important governance tool on which 1.396 million centres, benefiting 103 million pregnant women, lactating mothers, children under six and adolescent girls, were registered. The application’s trackers had “incorporated the WHO’s expanded tables to dynamically determine stunting, wasting, underweight and obesity status based on a child’s height, weight, gender and age”. Several key organisations such as Unicef, WHO and the World Bank had acknowledged the Poshan Tracker as a game changer in the area of nutrition. The statement also claimed that the percentage of child wasting was below 7.2 per cent month on month compared with the value of 18.7 used for child wasting in GHI 2023.
The statement was also critical of the SOFI report, which, it said, was based on the FIES survey conducted through an opinion poll with a small sample size and eight questions. It said that the data collected to compute the PoU value for India was “not only wrong and unethical, it also reeks of obvious bias”. The FAO, it said, was asked not to use estimates based on FIES survey data as there was a pilot survey on FIES planned by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation in consultation with the FAO, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare and Department of Food and Public Distribution.
Frontline learnt from reliable sources that the so-called pilot survey in two districts had not taken off though it was planned two years ago. In fact, data pertaining to food security, as part of “additional data”, had been collected during the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) in 2016-18 but were not released. The CNNS was a nationally representative cross-sectional household survey that collected a wide range of data from more than 1.1 lakh children and adolescents in urban and rural areas in 28 States and two Union Territories.
The government did not say anything when the SOFI report was released in July. It raised objections when the PoU rates as calculated in the SOFI report were repeated in the GHI report. “The SOFI report doesn’t draw too much publicity even in the Indian media. It is the GHI which the government finds problematic. Any report that says India is going hungry is not liked by the government. No other country has found fault with the FIES survey or the eight questions asked as part of the Gallup poll,” said an economist who is associated with the FAO’s work.
GHI advisor’s response
To queries from Frontline regarding the government’s objections, Miriam Weimers, Senior Policy Advisor, GHI, Policy and External Relations, replied by email that no other government had objected to the methodology used in the GHI report. “In no other situation has there been a sustained rejection of the GHI as has been consistently lodged by the Indian government. However, the sustained interest in India’s GHI score shows how salient the issue of hunger is in India’s political discourse,” wrote Weimers.
She said the government’s reaction “seems to stem from the fact that the Indian government has long sought to eliminate hunger from the country, and successfully eliminated famine decades ago”. The GHI, she clarified, was a multidimensional measure of hunger that took into account undernutrition, particularly of children, which drove up India’s GHI score.
Weimers also clarified that the GHI rankings from one year’s report cannot be compared with rankings in reports from other years because every year there is a different set and different number of countries in the ranking, depending on changing data availability. The data are revised each year and sometimes the methodology is updated. “Each year the Indian government and Indian media compare India’s ranking in the latest GHI publication to its ranking in the GHI report from the previous year. There is often a debate about why India has ‘slipped in the rankings’ but as we emphasize repeatedly in the report and online, this is not a valid comparison,” she wrote.
On the government’s objections to the PoU values, Weimer said that the PoU indicator was calculated by the FAO using several parameters. “The PoU takes into account the average per capita availability of food as obtained through carefully constructed food balance sheets.... PoU also... takes into account the distribution of calorie intake in the population as estimated through official consumption surveys conducted by governments. When governments do not provide recent consumption survey data, changes in the distribution of calorie intake in the population are estimated using the FIES survey data, collected as part of the Gallup World Poll, which has a sample size of 3,000 in India,” she said.
On why the Poshan Tracker data were not included, she said that such data could be used for “future editions of the GHI once they had been included in the Unicef-WHO-WB Joint Malnutrition Estimates, Joint Data Set of Survey Estimates and/or the WHO Global Database on Child Nutrition”.
Child mortality and hunger
The government believes there is no evidence that child mortality is an outcome of hunger. The GHI counters this by quoting studies that say that 45 per cent of global child mortality is because of undernutrition. It cites the finding of the India State Level Disease Burden Initiative Malnutrition Collaborators, quoted in research papers, that malnutrition was the predominant risk factor for death in children under five in every State in India in 2017, accounting for 68.2 per cent of under-five mortality.
The GHI report was also faulted for ignoring the impact of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), which the government stated was the largest food security programme in the world. Yet, the government was reluctant to either conduct a household consumption survey or release the findings of the 2017-18 survey, which could have revealed the state of food security or insecurity in the population.