Global Hunger Index and India’s stand – Explained, pointwise

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Recently, the Global Hunger Index 2021 was released. The data for the index is sourced from FAO, the Joint database of UNICEF, WHO, World Bank and others.

India has slipped seven places to rank 101 among 116 countries. Even the index showed India is improving its absolute score, its rank slipped because others did better. The Index ranked India fourth among South Asian countries. Only 15 other countries such as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Somalia ranked below India on the Index. Barring last year’s rank of 94 out of 107 countries, India’s rank has been between 100 and 103 since 2017.

In response to the poor rankings, the Ministry of Women and Child Development issued a statement. The statement challenged India’s poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index 2021. Further, the statement also mentioned that the methodology used for the rankings is devoid of ground reality and facts and suffers from serious methodological issues.

Does India need to reframe its policies and intervention to eradicate Hunger, or the WCD ministry’s accusations are justified?

What is the Global Hunger Index?

It is an annual report jointly published by ‘Concern Worldwide’ and ‘Welthungerhilfe’. 

The GHI scores are based on the values of four component indicators — undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality. It is important to note that the undernourishment or insufficient calorie intake is applicable for all age groups, whereas the remaining three are confined only to children under five years.

Each country’s GHI score is classified by severity, from low to extremely alarming.

IndicatorsData sourced from
Undernourishment (accorded 1/3rd weightage)FAO
Child Mortality (accorded 1/3rd weightage)U.N. Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation
Child Wasting and Stunting (accorded 1/6th weightage each)Joint database of UNICEF, WHO, World Bank 

A country’s score on any of these parameters is compared to a benchmark value, which is the maximum that prevailed between 1988 and 2013.

The lower the number, the better is the country’s achievement on the index. ‘0’ means no hunger and ‘100’ means extreme hunger.

What are the key findings of the Global Hunger Index 2021?
Global Hunger Index
Source: Global Hunger Index

The 2021 Index was assessed from the data that belonged to the period 2016 to 2020. 

According to the Index, the level of hunger was ‘serious’ in 36 countries besides India. In nine countries, the severity was ‘alarming’. It was ‘extremely alarming’ in Somalia, which ranked 116 on the Index this year.

According to the report, the conflict, climate change and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have exacerbated the food security situation across the globe. At this rate, 47 countries, including India, will be unable to achieve a low level of hunger by 2030.

What are the key findings of the Global Hunger Index 2021 on India?
Global Hunger Index 2021
Source: The Hindu

India’s score on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) in the recent two decades has declined by 10 points. It reduced to 28.8 in 2021, from 38.8 in 2000. 

India was ranked 94 among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) released last year. But this year, India slipped 7 spots and ranked at the 101st position of 116 countries.

India was also behind most of the neighbouring countries. Pakistan was placed at 92, Nepal and Bangladesh at 76 and Sri Lanka at 65.

Note: India’s rank dropped by two places in the Global Sustainable Development Report 2021, primarily because of major challenges like ending hunger and achieving food security.

Undernourishment: The proportion of undernourished in the population has increased from 14.0% (2017-19) to 15.3% (2018-20).

Child Mortality: The report said that India has been successful in saving nearly 2 million kids under five years from dying. Even though India had shown promise over the past decade in reducing maternal and child mortality, much more needed to be done.

Child wasting (low weight for height): Globally, India (with 17.3% wasting prevalence) ranked among the worst in ‘child wasting’ or ‘weight for height’. Its performance was worse than Djibouti and Somalia.

Child stunting (low height for age): The report estimated, some 17.3% of children under five years of age in India were stunted during 2016-2020. This was an increase of 15.1 per cent from 2010-2014.

What are the allegations of the government against the report?

The government questioned the FAO report used for assessing undernourishment. This is also the only indicator in the report that has shown deterioration in India, the other three either show an improvement or have remained unchanged.

First, the methodology used by FAO is unscientific: The government accused FAO’s data on undernourishment is based on the results of a ‘four question’ opinion poll, which was conducted telephonically by Gallup. The government also said that the opinion poll does not have a single question on whether the respondent received any food support from the Government or other sources.

Second, the performance of Neighbours: The government also mentioned that in the FAO report ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021’, other four countries of this region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, have not been affected at all by Covid-19 pandemic induced loss of job/business and reduction in income levels. Instead, they have been able to improve their position on the indicator during the period 2018-20 over 2017-19.

Third, government efforts neglected: The report completely disregards the government’s massive effort to ensure food security of the entire population during the Covid period such as Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna (PMGKAY) and Atmanirbhar Bharat Scheme (ANBS). Further, India is also implementing the world’s biggest food security programme.

Apart from that the report also neglected other government initiatives such as, POSHAN Abhiyan, Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana, National Food Security Act, 2013, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme, One nation, One ration card scheme, etc.

Are the government allegations against the Global Hunger Index justified?

No, according to the FAO report, the prevalence of undernourishment in a population is calculated in a very scientific manner that includes habitual dietary energy intake levels, access to calories, information on the population structure and median height in each sex and age.

So, some FAO data relies on Gallup polls, but undernourishment is not based on the results of opinion polls. However, this does not mean that the GHI is free from inadequacies.

What are the challenges associated with the Global Hunger Index?

Not focus on Hunger: Conceptually, the GHI is largely children-oriented with a higher emphasis on undernutrition than on hunger and its hidden forms, including micronutrient deficiencies. So, It should be more precisely called ‘The Global Human Nourishment Index.’

Not focus on population and associated different measures of countries:

Assessing undernutrition is difficult: The lower calorie intake does not necessarily mean deficiency. Undernourishment may also stem from reduced physical activity, better social infrastructure (road, transport and healthcare) and access to energy-saving appliances at home, among others.

Focus on uniform calorie benchmark throughout India: For a vast and diverse country like India, using a uniform calorie norm to arrive at deficiency prevalence means failing to recognise the huge regional imbalances. For example, a large proportion of the population in Kerala and Tamil Nadu may get counted as calorie deficient despite them being better in nutritional outcome indicators.

So, the Global Hunger Index data might overestimate in some states and underestimate in the rest.

Apart from that, the GHI also has other issues such as,

As the index make some specific years (years with benchmark value) as reference years, the scores are not comparable across years. So there’s no way of knowing whether India did better or worse compare to the previous year.

Like many other global indexes, the GHI also take no account of different population sizes, and it does not consider the different paths that nations have followed.

What has to be done?

Even though India disputes the data on undernourishment, India has no answer to other factors in the Index. For instance, Child stunting in India declined from 54.2% in 1998–2002 to 34.7% in 2016-2020, whereas child wasting remains around 17% throughout the two decades of the 21st century.

Tackle child wasting effectively: If India can tackle wasting by effectively monitoring regions that are more vulnerable to socioeconomic and environmental crises, it can possibly improve wasting and stunting simultaneously.

Shifting to dietary patterns with diverse intake:

Diet diversity in India
Source: Business Standard

According to a global data repository, Indians consume 40% and 30% fewer vegetables and fruits respectively if one compares it to the global average. Apart from that, Indians also use low amounts of millets, pulses, meats and dairy products in their diets.

The government has to create awareness programs to improve nutrition intake and infuse diversification of diet.

Complete the National Family Health Survey-5 for the true picture: NFHS 5 data is available partially only for 22 states. The survey does not include some of the poor states like UP, MP, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh where malnutrition rates are very high. So, the fifth round must be completed quickly and used for identifying the problems on the ground level.

Proactive social policies: COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate child undernutrition in general and child wasting in particular. The government has to use such insights and work on a proactive social policy to counter the adverse impacts on food and nutrition insecurity.

Provide enough manpower and resources: During the pandemic, the Integrated Child Development Scheme services were either non-functional or severely disrupted. This is due to the staff and services were utilised to attend to the COVID-19 emergency. Further, Budget 2021 saw cuts in real terms for schemes such as the ICDS and the mid-day meal. So, India has to create adequate manpower and allocate enough resources to tackle any future crisis.

This ranking should prompt the policymakers to relook at the policy and interventions and ensure that they can effectively address the concerns raised by the GHI, especially against pandemic-induced nutrition insecurity.

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