India has ranked 94th among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020. This implies that the Indian government has failed to provide adequate food to a substantial portion of the country’s population. The target of achieving zero hunger by 2030 is very difficult. Even before the Covid 19 pandemic, the global progress on reducing hunger was far too slow to attain the target. The GHI report 2020 mentions that at the end of last year, nearly 690 million people were suffering from chronic hunger.
Alarming levels of hunger have been identified in three countries—Chad, Timor-Leste, and Madagascar as per the recently released GHI scores. Based on other known data, alarming hunger has also been provisionally identified in eight countries—Burundi, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Hunger is at serious levels in 31 countries and provisionally categorised as 'serious' in nine other countries.
What is GHI?
The GHI is measured in terms of undernourishment of people in general, child nutrition, and child mortality. There are four indicators to measure GHI. These are the percentage of undernourished people in a population, percentage of wasting (low weight to height) in children under five years of age, percentage of stunting (low height for age), and under five mortality. The result on GHI scores is on a 100-point GHI severity scale, where 0 is the best score (no hunger) and 100 is the worst.
India has scored 27.2 in GHI. It is not only far behind the best ranked 17 countries of the world but lags behind many neighbouring countries, namely, Pakistan (88), Myanmar (78), Bangladesh (75), Nepal (73), and Sri Lanka (64). Another important matter is that the performance of India on the GHI is not improving. Rather, India has been decelerating. But many neighbouring countries have been improving. It should be noted that there is no shortage of food in India. As per the figures (September 2020) of the Food Corporation of India, the total foodgrain stock (both rice and wheat) is 700.27 lakh MT. This means that there are more than sufficient food stocks in India - about two and a half times the target. What is lacking is its proper utilisation.
Between 2000 and 2020, India’s score has improved by 0.1% to reach 27.2. But Pakistan has improved by 33.9% to reach 24.6 and Bangladesh has improved by 42.2% to reach 20.4. Another notable factor is that this trend has been especially galling for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government (Economic and Political Weekly, 24th October, 2020). The improvements of GHI decelerated sharply in this regime. It has been pointed out that India’s GHI score improved by 8.2% points, that is, by 21.9% in the period under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule. On the other hand, this improvement decelerated sharply by 2.1 points or by 7.2% under the NDA government.
Why is India’s GHI score so poor despite the huge food stocks and the extensive public food distribution network?
India has one of the largest social protection programmes in the world that provides subsidised cereals to 800 million people. The government programmes to ensure food security have singularly focused on providing an energy-sufficient diet rather than a nutritious or a healthy diet. Actually, the low per capita income makes a nutritious or healthy diet unaffordable to a majority of the people in India. In fact, calculations made by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for India show that an energy-sufficient diet costs $0.79 per capita per day as compared to $1.9 for a nutrient-adequate diet and $3.41 for a healthy diet (EPW, 2020).Citing the FAO data, the article also points out that while the share of India’s population unable to afford an energy-sufficient diet has shrunk to just 0.9%, the share of people unable to afford a nutrient-adequate diet is a large 39.1% and those unable to afford a healthy diet is a much higher 77.9%.
The government has to refocus on food security strategies and roll out programmes to ensure an affordable nutrient-adequate diet in the medium term and a healthy diet in the longer term. This can be achieved only by substantially reworking the food production targets to meet the increasing nutrient needs.