Why is India ranked so low in Global Hunger Index?

 Hunger, Globla Hunger Index Mid-day Meal Scheme, ICDS
Source: WSJ

India has been self-sufficient in food since the Green Revolution. Yet hunger persists in some parts of India and surfaces in the form of starvation deaths. In a few years, India will be the most populous nation, with a population of 1.4 billion, and if hunger is not eradicated, it will not be able to meet the UN’s second Sustainable Development Goal.

In cities, people with money have access to a variety of food and cuisines from all across the world. There is plenty of food which gets wasted. Even with so much food around, people queue up for free food in front of temples and hospitals daily because they are hungry.

It is somewhat shocking to learn that India is ranked lower than some sub-Saharan African countries, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and China in the Global Hunger Index. It is a national shame that India has slipped from the 83rd position in 2000 to the 97th position in 2016, among 118 countries, even though we have climbed up four places in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index in the last one year!

Hunger index is based on parameters such as shares of undernourished population, wasted and stunted children aged below five years and infant mortality rate. Amidst so much progress on many fronts and having the highest rate of GDP growth in the world, to have millions of undernourished children is something inexplicable and shows the extent of inequality of incomes and callousness towards the poor.

‘Wasting’ refers to underweight children in relation to their height and reflects acute undernourishment. Stunting of children refers to lower height achieved in relation to age that reflects chronic undernourishment.  In India, both types are prevalent in large numbers and 15 per cent of the population is undernourished. The percentage of ‘wasted’ children is 15 per cent and stunted 39 per cent.

What could be the reason? Lack of good quality food is one reason, but low quantity of food intake is also an important reason. When both are present, children grow up abnormally as ‘wasted’ or stunted.

Children living in an unhealthy environment with problems in access to safe drinking water suffer from water-borne diseases and diarrhoea which lead to underweight children and subsequent wasting. Infant mortality is also high at 4.8 per cent due to the same reasons of undernourishment and poor healthcare.

Hence undernourishment can be attributed to a large number of reasons, but perhaps the main reason could be persistent low incomes of households as well as lack of sanitation, potable water, and regular health checkups.

Since income is a major causal factor of the undernourishment index, is it possible to implement the much-talked about universal basic income scheme to battle the problem? In this scheme, a minimum amount, say, Rs 10,000 per year (Rs 11,664 per person per year defines rural poverty line) will be deposited in the bank account of all citizens and it will guarantee each individual a basic income and will  eliminate the problem of selection. There are still around 370 million poor struggling to feed their families with nutritious food. They would benefit from the cash to buy food on a regular basis.

Some questions can be raised about how to finance this kind of a safety net which several economists are now supporting. It could be done by cutting out non-merit subsidies — the ones that do not reach the people and are poorly targeted, and saving money to the extent of 9 to 10 per cent of the GDP. In addition, raising money from additional taxes and removing various tax exemptions for the rich can lead to additional income for the government. A tax on agricultural incomes cannot, however, be imposed because of political reasons. Many have argued that this cash handout will act as a disincentive to work and that women will withdraw from the labour force. But all such arguments get weakened when we realise the kind of deprivation that still is prevalent in the poorest sections of the population in both urban and rural areas. At least with a minimum amount of cash in the bank, people will be able to buy food for their hungry children. Undernourishment will then be reduced.

Every effort should also be made by the states to increase the efficient delivery of health, sanitation and educational services to the poor through higher investments in these areas. The universal
basic income cannot replace the government’s investment in the provision of basic amenities to the population, but it can give cash in the pockets of the poor for food. Of course, many people who are poor and irresponsible will use the money for alcohol and drugs, but most people would use it for the welfare of their families as has been the case in many countries.

In terms of human rights, universal basic income guarantees each person the right to food. The seriousness of the problem of undernourishment should be highlighted and tackled at the national level because states alone cannot handle a problem of such enormity. The Integrated Child Development Scheme, for children up to seven years of age, is the biggest Central child welfare scheme. Yet the many loopholes and ineffective implementation of the scheme leaves much to be desired in the way children are looked after in anganwadis. Many are without proper facilities like toilets and play spaces. The other scheme for providing nourishment to schoolchildren — the midday meal scheme — is also lacking in strength. In some states, they have been successful and children have benefited, but in many states, there is rampant corruption in the operation of the scheme. The scheme should be refurbished because very often it is the only meal that a child coming from a poor household has during the day. To climb up the hunger index ought to be the top priority for India which is staking its claim to becoming a global power.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Jayshree Sengupta

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