5 ways to combat pessimism about the hunger index

Dear Narendra Modi,
You protested recently that some people sleep well only after spreading pessimism all round. Rahul Gandhi responded by highlighting global pessimism: India has slipped to 110th among 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index of IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute).

Now, many problems may be exaggerated by international organisations. But you will bore the public by criticizing technical flaws in the Global Hunger Index (GHI). Instead, you need to show that India is far less hungry than critics allege, and that you are remedying problems that are real.

The GHI is based on four measures: undernourishment, under-5 child mortality, stunting (shortness for age) and wasting (low weight for height) of children. None of these actually measures hunger. A more accurate title might be World Child Nutrition Report, but IFPRI prefers “hunger” as a sexier sales pitch.

India is one of the few countries with hunger data in NSSO surveys. These show that hunger declined from 16% of the population in 1983 to 1.9% in 2004-05. Instead of trumpeting this as a success, you have stopped asking questions about hunger altogether in your surveys!

Why? Many feel embarrassed by such a low hunger ratio. After all, India is still poor. Besides, huge subsidies to two-thirds of the population look unwarranted if only 2% are hungry. Poverty experts like NC Saxena explain away low NSSO hunger ratios by saying people are too ashamed to admit hunger. He then cites a UNDP survey of 16 of the poorest districts reporting serious food inadequacy in 7.5% of households and some inadequacy in 29%. With no sense of irony, Saxena thinks people responding to UNDP surveys suddenly lose all the shame they suffer from when responding to NSSO surveys!

 

Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze found that calorie consumption in the poorest 25% of the population had actually fallen from 1,683 in 1987-88 to 1,624 in 2004-05 despite substantial income increases. Additional income was used not for more calories but to switch to superior foods and non-food items. Clearly the poor have priorities other than calories. To insist that their reported and demonstrated lack of hunger is illusory is patronising elitism.

Many studies show that mechanization has greatly reduced calorie requirements. Instead of walking for miles, people now cycle or take buses. Agriculture, industry and services have all become highly mechanized, reducing dramatically the use of manual labour. Yet the calorie norms have not been reduced. This greatly exaggerates undernourishment.

Former Niti Aayog chief Arvind Panagariya argued that international norms on child stunting and wasting were wrong. India has higher life expectancy at birth, lower infant and child mortality, and lower stillbirth and maternal mortality rates than most African countries, yet international norms show Indian children to be more stunted and wasted than African ones. Something is seriously wrong here.

Yet, whatever the exaggerations, surely there are genuine problems too. India’s child mortality rate is 47 deaths per 1,000 births, against 38 in Bangladesh, 27 in Indonesia and 10 in Sri Lanka. This may have more to do with insufficient vaccination and nutritional awareness than hunger, but is a problem nevertheless.

Again, many studies reveal discrimination against women, especially female children, in food and health spending. A man who tells surveyors there is no hunger in his household may speak for himself and not his wife and little girls. This may be more a gender than food problem, but nevertheless needs remedying through a massive awareness campaign on the evils of gender discrimination, the special needs of pregnant women and babies, and the case for female empowerment through self-help groups.

Research by Dan Spears and others has shown that even when calories are consumed, they are not absorbed because of diarrhea and insanitary conditions. Full stomachs may therefore translate into stunted bodies. The answer is better sanitation rather than more food subsidies.

Mr Modi, you can do five things to rebut Rahul Gandhi and IFPRI. First, restart measuring hunger in NSSO surveys: international organisations will find that difficult to ignore. Second, revise Indian calorie norms in view of widespread mechanisation, and urge world bodies to follow suit. Third, combat critics spinning data with counter-spin. Spin your own emphasis on gender equality to say it also attacks maternal mortality and child stunting. Spin your Swachh Bharat scheme to boast that, as the first politician to aim for an open- defecation-free India, you target not just cleanliness but malnutrition. Finally, implement the Food Security Act’s promised cash benefit to pregnant and lactating women, naming this project after Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.

What do you think?