22 Oct 2021 18:23 IST

The Global Hunger report leaves India with a sour aftertaste

The kerfuffle over India’s slide in the global hunger index is a reflection of the Indian mindset.

In the recently released global hunger index, India’s position slipped to 101 this year from 94 last year . The Global Hunger report, prepared jointly by the Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide and German body Welt Hunger Wilfe, termed India’s situation “alarming.” The ranks are given on a scale of 100 where 0 implies “zero hunger”. India’s score at 27.5 is seen as “serious”.

This predictably led to a round of finger pointing and recrimination. The Modi government promptly rubbished the report by calling the findings “unscientific.” The Ministry of Women and Child Development claimed that the report had lowered India’s rank on the basis of FAO estimate on proportion of undernourished population. The government went on to say that the report was “devoid of ground reality and facts.” What is perhaps more galling, for the government and the public at large, is that India is behind its neighbours Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Stunting and wasting

The four parameters used by the index to measure hunger are — undernourishment, stunting (children with low height for their age), wasting (children with low weight for their age), and child mortality.

The first parameter pertains to all people and the others are confined to children under five. What is truly alarming is India is the worst performer in wasting, which often used as a measure of malnourishment, among the 116 nations analysed. So is the hunger index “unscientific” as the government says or is it based on the reality on ground?

Economists Sunny Jose and Md Zakaria Siddiqui in a recent column in The Hindu say that for measuring undernourishment — calorific or food intake — the index has relied on the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation data. But they argue that had the data from India’s National Sample Survey on consumption been used the results may have been even more disturbing. It may be recalled that in 2019 an NSS survey had reported a 4 per cent fall in consumption between 2011-12 and 2017-18.

However, that said, these indices are never perfect and always suffer from some methodological shortcoming or the other. Jose and Siddiqui cite several shortcomings in the hunger index. For instance, apart from the actual level and content of food intake, there are several other factors that determine nourishment. The environment in which the person lives, (clean or unhygienic), the level of exercise he gets, and so on, play a huge part in a person’s level of nourishment. Jose and Siddiqui also point to the pitfalls of making these estimations in a diverse country like India which is beset with huge regional variations.

But Jose and Siddiqui see a silver lining in this dismal picture. They say that child mortality is one area where India has performed better than their peers.

Reading data right

A similar debate occurred in the past when measurement of the incidence of poverty was undertaken. For a long time the “poverty line” method was in vogue. People below this “poverty line”, typically signified by an income level, would be considered poor. A typical example of this is the World Bank’s $2 a day measure. But economists, to be fair to them, were acutely aware of the shortcomings of this method even back in the day. Poverty, thanks to the enormous research in this area, is now seen through a “multidimensional” lens, a reflection of the several factors that go into making a person poor, not just income.

For instance, under the “poverty line” method, a person above the threshold income would be dubbed as “non-poor”, but if that person lives in a unhygienic environment, lacking access to drinking water, basic education, and health facilities, then his quality of life would be severely hit. It is for these reasons that the UN moved towards a multidimensional index to measure poverty which took into account a whole host factors such as health, nutrition, schooling, access to drinking water, electricity, and housing apart from income.

The Indian mindset

So given the methodological pitfalls, was the Indian government right in dismissing the global hunger report? No, because the findings of the report broadly conform with many of the studies, both global and Indian, on the incidence of hunger in India.

Also, given the devastating impact of the pandemic on livelihoods in the past year, it is hardly surprising to see India slipping in the hunger rankings. But this brings us to another peculiar aspect of the Indian mindset which is reflected in ample measure in the government’s reaction. We are quick to dismiss any global criticism of our society, but more than happy to lap up praise from the same quarters.

A comparison to the Indian reaction to the global hunger index with the recent upgrade of Moody’s outlook from “negative” from “stable” is a case in point. This is not to say that Moody’s was wrong or everything that the Global Hunger Index said was right. Engaging with criticism constructively without being “prickly” is surely a sign of a nation comfortable in its skin.