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A state of denial: India's response to global reports

As is the case with all indices that try to capture a complex reality in one single number, the GHI also suffers from a number of limitations
Last Updated : 23 October 2022, 02:17 IST

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When India was ranked 107 out of 121 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI), the Ministry of Women and Child Development 'rejected' the ranking, claiming there were serious methodological flaws in how the research was conducted. Time and again, the Indian government has rejected ranking and criticism by global organisations and publications. The pattern keeps repeating, even as the last few months have seen a number of global reports rank India poorly on a number of counts.

We continue to rank low on the human development index (132 out of 191 countries), and are at the bottom of the ladder of the global gender gap report (135 out of 146 countries), in addition to our abysmal ranking on the GHI. A report by the World Bank concluded that 80% of those who fell below the $2.15/day poverty line in 2020 were Indians. There has been criticism of the way the second wave of the pandemic was handled, with reports of mortality rates much above the official death count.

The typical response of the Indian government has been to dismiss reports that are inconvenient and, in some cases, to go so far as to allege a conspiracy to ‘taint India’s image’, as in the case of the most recent denial surrounding the GHI.

As is the case with all indices that try to capture a complex reality in one single number, the GHI also suffers from a number of limitations. Despite this, the ranking holds validity as it was based on widely accepted indicators, and the data is sourced from official government records.

Further, it does raise valid questions: Take for instance the high levels of malnutrition, and slow progress on this front. When considering different national contexts, childhood stunting in India reduced from 38.7% in 2014 to 35.5% in 2022, while in Bangladesh the rate fell from 36.2% to 28% during the same period. 19.3% of children in India are wasted, while only 9.8% in Bangladesh are in the same condition.

The entire debate is focused on whether these figures can technically be used to measure ‘hunger’ or not.

It is indeed true that a number of factors affect malnutrition outcomes, including food security. Yet, shouldn’t we still be concerned with these trends? Do they not reflect the fact that not all is well with the health and well-being of children in the country?

The response from the government — a denial, is not entirely surprising, nor is it exclusive to global reports alone. Data that is inconvenient is routinely discredited and obfuscated. The first Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) report by the Union government showed unemployment at the highest level in five decades. When it was leaked in the media, the government rejected it, raising questions on the methodology and validity of the data. Yet, shortly after the General Elections were over, they released the same report without any changes. The fate of the 2017-18 consumption survey was worse; it was junked even after being approved by the National Statistical Commission (NSC).

Many of the objections to the data used in the global reports also arise due to gaps in our own data collection. A large portion of government records is still based on the 2011 Census. There is no information on when the next Census will be conducted.

No comparable figures

Consumption expenditure data from the NSC would enable us to have comparable figures on poverty and calorie consumption. Similarly, on food security, relevant data has been collected by the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) in partnership with UNICEF during 2016-18. It could provide credible information to either validate or dismiss the FAO-sponsored Gallup poll that the Government of India has rejected, but the survey has not yet been released.

The outrage caused by global reports and indices should only push us to do better, both in terms of improving the lives of people and also in documentation through independent and transparent data systems.

Cross-country and global indices have inherent issues due to data availability, quality and comparability across countries. But what these recent reports are finding about India is not at variance with a large number of field studies, ground reports and other economic indicators.

Studies conducted by various civil society organisations and academic institutions show that people are facing severe economic distress, induced by the pandemic as well as the pre-pandemic economic slowdown. People have been reporting increased food insecurity, hunger and worsening diets.

There has been a loss of income for many during the two years of the pandemic, and this has only been partially compensated for by schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Official data show that wages for agriculture and non-agriculture wage workers have stagnated over the last five to six years and have even seen a decline in real terms in the last two years. There are multiple reports of poverty increasing. While free grains distributed under the Public Distribution System have reached a large number of people, many are still left out. Many who get the grains are not able to afford pulses, eggs, milk, fruits, vegetables and meat in adequate quantities.

While these global reports might be causing embarrassment to the country in international forums, we must seriously reflect on our response. Currently, the approach seems to be one of outright denial. A more productive way of responding would be to acknowledge the reality and act upon it.

Structural issues

It is quite obvious now that the post-pandemic economic recovery has not been uniform for everyone in the country. Structural issues that are leading to unemployment, income inequality, ill health and malnutrition have to be dealt with head-on. Addressing these requires interventions at various levels, including a complete re-orientation of priorities, where employment generation and provision of universal public services are at the core.

Covid, and the disruption it caused, could have been an opportunity for such an overhaul. However, the response so far has been deeply disappointing. The government has been constantly shifting goalposts – from 'acche din' to 'amrit kaal' – while not delivering on even basic promises such as spending 2.5% of the GDP on health (National Health Policy, 2017) or 6% on education (New Education Policy, 2020).

It is not as if all international attention is dismissed. Mainstream media, as well as the government, recently celebrated India becoming the fifth-largest economy in the world. As with other data, this is also vulnerable to comparability issues, which have been conveniently ignored. In this case, the government did not raise questions about whether national incomes across countries of vastly varying populations can be compared in such a manner or what exchange rates should be used, even though they are valid concerns.

The issue is, therefore, not only about data and indices but about the denial of serious issues that concern people. Discrediting data which is inconvenient may temporarily thwart an informed discussion and public mobilisation on real issues. It also disincentivises statistical organisations and media from raising the right questions. However, shooting the messenger is unlikely to hide the truth for long.

(Dipa Sinha works at Dr B R Ambedkar University, Delhi)

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Published 22 October 2022, 16:14 IST

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