26 October 2017 15:27:37 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

So, how hungry are we?

A shocking IFPRI report shows the economy’s well-being doesn’t depend only on growth rates and inflation

Amidst all the gloom and doom about slowing growth and the political wrangling surrounding it, one important report was quietly relegated to the inside pages of newspapers.

This recent report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which tracks the hunger index the world over, didn’t quite get the front-page attention it deserved.

The report had some disturbing news on India: the country was ranked 100 among 119 nations on the hunger index and had slipped three notches since last year. In Asia, only Afghanistan and Pakistan performed worse than India.

The Global Hunger Index is measured on four indicators — undernourishment, child mortality, child wasting and child stunting. (Child stunting is low height for age and child wasting is low weight for height.)

Malnourished children

The IFPRI statement said: “India’s high ranking on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) again this year brings to the fore the disturbing reality of the country’s stubbornly high proportions of malnourished children.”

It further said that more than 20 per cent of children below the age of five in India are underweight for their height, and over 30 per cent are too short for their age.

“Even with the massive scale-up of national nutrition-focused programmes in India, drought and structural deficiencies have left a large number of poor in India at risk of malnourishment in 2017,” said PK Joshi, IFPRI Director for South Asia.

But global indices on hunger have always generated controversy in India. Many economists have questioned the efficacy of using such indices on the Indian population, given its ethnic, cultural and geographical differences.

There were also a couple of interesting op-ed articles that countered the findings of the IFPRI report.

India: an exceptional case?

Journalist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar, in his widely read ‘Swaminomics’ column in Times of India , wrote how the findings exaggerated the problem of hunger in India. He referred to a study by Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze which showed that the calorific intake of Indians had decreased from 1987-88 to 2004-05 despite a substantial increase in income. He explains this by saying that an increase in income is not necessarily led by an intake of more calories, as people tend to consume more ‘superior foods and non-food items’.

Arvind Panagariya, former NITI Aayog chief, has also in the past questioned the rationale of using international norms on child stunting and wasting for Indians.

Economist Surjit Bhalla, who is now member of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, in another newspaper article, calls the IFPRI analysis “less than honest”. He says like poverty, hunger too is a relative rather than an absolute concept.

A rather interesting claim he makes is that the extent of absolute poverty in India is 12 per cent in 2011-12 and not 23 per cent as officially claimed. He argues that the IFPRI index is not about hunger at all but about child mortality, malnutrition, child wasting and stunting.

Both Aiyar and Bhalla also talk about how the NSSO surveys used to ask a question about hunger which was stopped after the 2005 survey.

Malnutrition and sanitation

Malnutrition is seen by Bhalla as a bigger problem than hunger, as that affects stunting and weight. Here, he argues that there is a genuine nutrition absorption problem in India which could be alleviated through better sanitation. He does not seem be to a big fan of the Right to Food Act enacted by the erstwhile UPA government and argues for a drastic improvement in sanitary conditions and an end to open defecation, in line with the Modi government’s ‘Swachch Bharat’ campaign.

It would be interesting to see the results that a State-wise analysis of hunger would throw up. Also, in India, the bigger problem is one of discrimination against the female child in allocating household resources. This includes access to food, healthcare and education.

There is a wealth of studies in this area pioneered by Jean Dreze, Amartya Sen and Barbara Harriss-White. Though many Indians would be loath to admit to the findings of these studies, there is little doubt about the seriousness of the problem.

In India, the southern States, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh have always done better on social indices including child mortality, sex ratio, literacy and maternal healthcare. Kerala’s record in this is on a par with that of the developed Western European countries.

Despite the methodological wrangling over the IFPRI study, it has generated a debate on this important issue, while making it clear that the economy’s well-being doesn’t depend only on growth rates, fiscal deficits and inflation.