India’s 107th rank out of 121 countries in Global Hunger Index (GHI, 2022) released recently by the Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe (CWW) has caused some anguish within the government of India (GoI). While opposition parties in India lapped it to show this as ‘evidence’ of poor policies and performance of the ruling government, the Modi government hit back by rejecting it and even saying that it is a deliberate attempt to taint India’s image globally. Let me try to dig a little deeper into it and see where is the problem with GHI and what can be done to improvise it.
Many readers may not know that GHI had its genesis in IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute), where I had the privilege to serve for more than a decade. Let me say at the very outset, IFPRI is a very responsible and credible organisation, and would never ever venture into maligning any country’s image. Having said that, let me also add that any index of such nature can have conceptual and empirical problems, and there is always scope to improve. I recall when GHI was envisioned in IFPRI, we had discussed and debated this, from its very nomenclature to the weights of different components that comprise this. I, for one, had my reservations at that time and have it so even now. So, I have sympathy with GoI when it responded by saying, “Three out of four indicators used for calculation of the index are related to health of children and can not be representative of the entire population. The fourth and most important indicator—the estimate of Proportion of Undernourished Population—is based on an opinion poll conducted on a very small sample size of 3,000.” I fully agree with this statement and even go further in saying that the weighting diagram in the GHI needs a revisit if it has to represent entire population.
Where is the problem with GHI? First, the very nomenclature conveys as if the country is starving for basic food and millions are victims of starvation deaths. That’s not at all the case in India. India has been giving literally free food (rice/wheat)—10/kg per person per month to more than 800 million people since April 2020 in the wake of Covid-19. And it also exported more than 30 million metric tons (mmt) of cereals in 2021. This has helped many other countries avert starvation deaths. It has been well applauded by multilateral agencies like the UNDP, IMF, World Bank, etc. The anguish of GoI on the account of the GHI comes precisely from the fact that it does not consider this mega scheme of free food under PMGKAY, but instead relies on an ‘opinion survey’ of 3,000 in a country of 1.4 billion! In defence, the CWW says that consumption data from National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) isn’t available beyond 2011, so they relied on this limited ‘opinion survey’. This is not a credible excuse for a large country like India.
My humble suggestion to CWW is to use calorie-intake based on FAO’s food balance sheets. I say so because even NSSO data on consumption has serious problems of underestimation. Statistical experts caution using NSSO consumption data for total consumption. Our own research at ICRIER shows that the gap in calories consumption as estimated from NSSO consumption surveys and those from production statistics of food has been growing over years. The food balance sheet approach gives 15-20% higher calorie consumption than NSSO. For 2019, we estimated 2,581 calories, while NSSO consumption survey of 2011 is stuck at 2,088 calories. More research is needed by CWW that brings out the GHI, to refine these numbers. I am sure with this improvement, India’s ranking will also improve. And since India is such a large country, even global numbers on hunger will undergo significant changes.
But let me turn to other variables that go into GHI and their weights. Besides the malnourished population, which has a weight of 0.33 in GHI, the other variables are stunting (low height for age) and wasting (low weight for height) of children below the age of 5, which together have a weight of 0.33. The fourth variable is that of mortality rate of children under 5 years, which also has a weight of 0.33. So, in the overall GHI, two-thirds of the weights are of children under 5 years age. No wonder the GoI is saying that GHI is more reflective of children’s health status than that of the entire population. In the children’s health status, much of the data used in GHI is from the National Family Health Surveys.
What we need to note however is that, in the case of mortality rates, no matter how you measure, there is a significant drop over time. The mortality rate for the under-5 age group (U5MR) has fallen from 88.1 in 2001 to 32.6 in 2020, per 1000 live births (see graphic).
The progress in stunting and wasting is much slower as measured by NFHS because when children are saved from dying, they often increase the inflow of malnourished children. The outflow from this reservoir of stunted and wasted children is still not large enough to show as dramatic a decline as mortality rates have shown. But once mortality rates stabilise at low levels, I am sure the fall in stunting and wasting will be must faster.
However, it must be noted that stunting and wasting, is not just because of lack of food (hunger). It is a multi-dimensional problem that requires focus on female education, access to immunisation, and better sanitation facilities. The upshot of all this is that we need a much more comprehensive index, like the Multi-dimensional Poverty Index (MPI) of UNDP, than the GHI to capture the status of entire population.
The writer is distinguished professor at ICRIER,
Views are personal