India ranks 107 on the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI), of the 121 countries assessed, making it the worst-performing Asian nation save conflict-torn Afghanistan. It again ranks far behind neighbours Sri Lanka (64th), Nepal (81st), Bangladesh (84th), and even Pakistan (99th). The country, as was the case with the rankings from the past couple of years, also lags other large emerging economies, including China, Brazil and Russia.
Whether too much should be read into the rankings still remains a question. Biraj Patnaik, former principal adviser to the commissioners of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, believes the data don’t lend themselves well to meaningful cross-country comparisons on an annual basis. While India was ranked 101st among 116 countries last year, the report comes with the usual caveat that a country’s rankings aren’t accurately comparable over successive years, given that the score for an indicator in a particular year is calculated using relevant data over the preceding five years; to illustrate, the 2022 scores for India will be based on performance over 2017-2021.
India’s score of 29.1 puts it in the ‘serious’ category based on how GHI assigns severity of ‘hunger’. A nation’s level of ‘hunger’ is assessed after standardisation of the country’s showing across four indicators — prevalence of undernourishment (daily caloric intake lower than the benchmark), child stunting, child wasting, and under-five mortality. While India has been seeing a general trend of decline across all four indicators for some years, its showing on child wasting (low weight for their height, signalling acute malnutrition) and undernourishment has worsened slightly in 2022 over 2014. At 19.3%, India has the highest child wasting rate of all countries covered in the GHI. While child stunting (low height for age among children under five years of age) has seen a significant decrease — from 54.2% in 1998–1999 to 35.5% in 2019–2021 — it is still considered very high. The problem of child under-nutrition is of particular concern, experts believe. “We can’t claim a seat on the high table of developed nations with these statistics relating to our children,” says Patnaik.
An aspect of child under-nutrition that bears investigation, as per Chetan Choithani, assistant professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, is nutritional deficit’s link to gender. “Pervasive gender inequalities, which result in girls getting inadequate attention in matters of food, nutrition and health vis-à-vis boys, need to be investigated as these lead to poor nutrition among girls, manifesting in turn as women bearing low-weight infants,” Choithani says.
Addressing female under-nutrition to preempt low birth-weight thus could be a key intervention. “The government can take two urgent steps. One is to make the maternity entitlement under the National Food Security Act universal and unconditional. The other is that it must use population estimates of 2022 rather than 2001 in calculating coverage under the NFSA. Close to a 100 million people are being excluded because the numbers have not been updated,” Patnaik says.
The report states that globally, the progress against world hunger is more or less at a standstill, as a combination of conflict, the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, and climate change push the hunger levels up. The hunger score of the world is currently at 18.2, which has been only slightly lower than the 2014 score of 19.1. South Asia remains the region with the highest levels of hunger and with the most concerning issues pertaining to child nutrition.