Weeding out hunger is tricky

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. Despite this, one in every five Indians is poor.

More worrying is the malnutrition among children. Stunting, wasting and underweight together determine their malnutrition. Undernourishment has long-term consequences on sensory, cognitive, social and emotional development.

Poverty is a multidimensional concept, which involves reduction in choices to pursue freedom. So is hunger.

Two recent reports try to clear the miasma on measurement. These are the Global Hunger Index (GHI) of the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Pathways to Reducing Poverty and Sharing Prosperity in India (PRPSPI) of the World Bank.

The latest edition of GHI shows India has slithered further down the rankings. It is now pegged at 97 out of 118 countries. Last year, the rank was 80 past 104 countries.

The GHI tries to capture the hunger level across countries. The index is constructed using four component indicators: percentage of undernourished in the population, percentage of wasting in children under five years old, percentage of stunting in children under five years, and under-five mortality rates. The index has been calculated since 2006 and the oldest calculations on the index go back to 1992.

Needless to say, successive governments have failed to arrest the nutritional downslide. Governments have changed but a ground-breaking change in the nutritional status is yet to come by. It is understandable if one is without shelter or a drape for the body; but a hungry stomach is simply baffling. Even today, some 19.4 crore of India’s population is going through food shortage.

Last year, the UN came out with a report which said that India is at the top when it comes to hunger. Small countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka are better poised. Some 20% of the country’s food stock is destroyed for lack of storage space.

The previous UPA government brought the National Food Security Act (NFSA) in 2013. According to this Act, 50% urban and 75% rural populations are entitled for coarse grains like rice, wheat etc.

Besides, pregnant women and children have been given a special quota. Additionally, the government is providing food grains at subsidised rate under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana. The moot question is, despite all this, why is India failing to end hunger and malnutrition?

Combine malnourishment with the lack of other basic am­enities like shelter and health delivery, you have a wholesome picture of deprivation.

According to an NSSO report, 80% of the populace still don’t have government health schemes or health insurance. Hospitals, particularly the government ones, are struggling with paucity of doctors nurses, pharmacists and other technical staff.

Over the years, how the poverty line and the modalities have become a butt of joke need no mention. In 2015, a committee under the chairmanship of Arvind Panagariya was set up to delineate the poverty line. The report is yet to come.

Yet, there is a silver lining. Like polio-free India, we can also achieve hunger-free India. And, a starvation-free India can only make the GDP grow. It can bring foreign investment and the dream of a manufacturing hub can become a reality.

Child deaths

Recently, the Bombay High Court had expressed its concern over hunger-related child deaths. Last year, some 17,000 children in Maharashtra died due to malnutrition. The court had directed the state government to expedite steps to stop malnutrition deaths and asked it to submit details of central grants received for tribal welfare.

A division bench of Justices V M Kanade and Swapna Joshi was hearing a bunch of PILs regarding malnutrition among children in Melghat region of Vidarbha and other tribal areas in Maharashtra. So also was the case in Madhya Pradesh. In Bhopal, on an average 60 children die due to malnutrition. Odisha’s Jajpur district was recently in the news for child deaths due to underfeeding.

It is not the case that India has not improved on nutritional parameters — the score has registered a secular improvement over the years. In a ranking, it matters a lot how others have performed. For instance, Myanmar has registered a far greater improvement than India, despite starting from a worse condition in 1992.

Undeniably, multilateral agencies as well as governments are playing an active role in understanding problems relating to poverty and hunger and finding solutions to them. But these challenges are all-encompassing and weeding them out will require clear evidence-based and data-driven solutions.

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