Hunger Index, a serious concern

India’s extremely low ranking in the just-released Global Hunger Index attests to the grim and shameful reality of the existence of absolute poverty on a large scale across the country and should cause not just concern but serious alarm. The index is a measure of basic poverty and India has fared badly in relative and absolute terms. It is ranked 102 among 117 countries, at the bottom in South Asia and behind even Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Pakistan is ranked 94 against India’s 102 and China is at 25, having improved its position considerably in the past few years. Three years ago, Pakistan was behind India. India’s rank has fallen by nine positions in the last four years. The index is prepared on the basis of indicators like undernourishment, child wasting (low weight for height), stunting (low height for age) and child mortality, and so gives a clear and true picture of poverty.

The index does not just say that millions of people in India go to bed without food every night, which in itself is an indictment of all the poverty alleviation programmes. The dismal picture it shows of children’s nutrition levels, which result from and have a direct bearing on poverty, is more serious. The wasting of children, caused by severe undernutrition, has risen from 16.5% in the 2008-2012 period to 20.8% in 2014-2018, the highest in the world. The child stunting rate is 37.9%. That means two out of 10 children are underweight and about four out of 10 are stunted. The physical, mental and intellectual impact of such high levels of malnutrition is severe. These children, who form a major segment of the population, will be badly handicapped when they grow up. In fact, just 9.6% of all children between six and 23 months of age are fed a “minimum acceptable diet”. That means only one child among 10 children gets the right food. 

The problem is not just one of the availability of food. India produces enough food and even exports it. But it does not reach enough food to all those who need it. Even when food is available, nutrition levels are poor. Poverty is not just a quantitative matter, it is to be measured in terms of indicators of well-being like those related to health. The Integrated Child Welfare Scheme, the mid-day meal programme and other projects have not worked as they should have. The right to food is not talked about now. The report that accompanies the index says nutrition and sanitation are closely linked but India’s performance is poor in these respects. It makes the promise of a $5 billion economy sound hollow and even cruel.

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