Protesting Indian farmers at a rally in Mumbai sustain themselves on meager Indian breads and pickles on March 13, 2018. Photo: Priyamvada Kowshik / Instagram
Protesting Indian farmers at a rally in Mumbai sustain themselves on meager Indian breads and pickles on March 13, 2018. Photo: Priyamvada Kowshik / Instagram

JAIPUR – India’s Narendra Modi government has been savaged by opposition parties, social activists and economists as the world’s second-most populous country slipped to near the bottom of a global hunger league despite record domestic grain production.

The latest Global Hunger Index says India dropped from 94th place in 2020 to 101 this year out of 116 countries with enough data to calculate scores. India now ranks behind its neighbors Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

“With a score of 27.5 , India has a level of hunger that is serious,” the report says.

The report has stung the Modi government, which has set the goal of eradicating poverty and corruption to mark the 75th anniversary of independence in 2022.

The index is a peer-reviewed annual report, jointly published by aid organizations Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe. It is designed to measure and track hunger at the global, regional, and country levels. The publishers say the index aims to trigger action to reduce hunger around the world.

The Global Hunger Index website says scores are calculated using a three-step process to capture the multi-dimensional nature of hunger.

For each country, values are determined for undernourishment; child wasting, meaning the share of children under the age of five who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition; child stunting, the share of children under five who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition; and mortality rate of under-fives.

Each indicator is given a standardized score on a 100-point scale. Standardized scores are then aggregated to calculate the index for each country.

A Kashmiri farmer stacks rice hay on the outskirts of Srinagar in Indian Administered Kashmir. Photo: NurPhoto / Muzamil Mattoo

Modi’s government has hit back by raising doubts about the index’s credibility. The Ministry of Women and Child Development questioned the methodology in a strongly-worded statement.

“It is shocking to find that the Global Hunger Report 2021 has lowered the rank of India based on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate on the proportion of the undernourished population, which is found to be devoid of ground reality and facts and suffers from serious methodological issues,” it said.

“The publishing agencies of the Global Hunger Report, Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, have not done their due diligence before releasing the report. 

“The methodology used by FAO is unscientific. They have based their assessment on the results of a ‘four question’ opinion poll, which was conducted telephonically by Gallup.

“The scientific measurement of undernourishment would require measurement of weight and height, whereas the methodology involved here is based on Gallup poll based on the pure telephonic estimate of the population.”

However, Nikhil Dey, a social and food rights activist and founder member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a people’s organization and part of the growing non-party political process in India, rejected the government’s criticism of the methodology.

“Instead of the government trying to pick holes in the methodology of the study it should take heed from the warning given by the hunger index that India is in an alarming situation,” he said.

“Is there a doubt for anyone that India is doing very badly on food insecurity, despite massive reserves of food?”

“The government should be diligently collecting statistics and doing studies to make sure that the food security situation improves. The government has stopped collecting statistics and stopped releasing them.

The government of Narendra Modi has set eradicating poverty as one of its goals. Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

“As a result, it has no real data of its own to counter data on child malnutrition and stunting which the Global Hunger Index relies on.

“Given our overflowing food grain stocks of over 100 million tonnes –  more than 3 times the buffer required – we should be distributing food to the needy and the poor”, Dey said.

Government figures show that farmers are expected to harvest a record 150.50 million tonnes of grains from summer-sown crops in the crop year to June 2022, according to Reuters news agency. This compares with 149.56 million tonnes in the previous year.

However, the Lowy Institute in Australia reported in 2018 that much of the grain from record harvests which was destined for the poor under the National Food Security Act rotted through poor storage or was siphoned off corruptly for private sale.

Arun Kumar, a retired economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University said that there was no point questioning the methodology as this methodology was also used earlier and no one questioned it then.

“If the methodology is consistent across the years, it is clearly showing we have slipped in the rank. It is not a specific methodology for India. It has been used for 116 countries,” Kumar said.

“It seems despite government efforts, food is not reaching the poor and needy people, mainly because of weak administration.”

NGO Oxfam India said the index reflects the reality of the country where hunger has worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This trend of undernutrition in India is unfortunately not new. It is based on the government’s own National Family Health Survey data,” Oxfam said.

“The data shows that between 2015 and 2019, a large number of Indian states ended up reversing the gains made on child nutrition.

“This loss of nutrition should be of concern because it has intergenerational effects. To put it simply, the latest data shows that in several parts of India, children born between 2015 and 2019 are more malnourished than the previous generation” said Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India

A farmer feeds his grandson during the protest near Delhi-Meerut expressway. Photo: The Times Of India via AFP/ Anindya Chattopadhyay

“It is estimated by independent researchers that India loses up to 4% of its gross domestic product and 8% of its productivity due to child malnutrition alone. Oxfam India is urgently calling upon the government to start talking about solutions.”

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Indian National Congress, tweeted, “India’s poor are hungry because the government is only trying to fill the pockets of some of its special or close ‘friends.’”

Another senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal tweeted satirically, “Congratulations Modi Ji for eradicating: 1) poverty 2) hunger 3) making India a global power 4) for our digital economy 5) …………… so much more Global Hunger Index: 2020: India ranked 94 2021: India ranks 101 Behind Bangladesh, Pakistan & Nepal”