Between Hunger and Poverty: Politics and Policies of Estimation

malnutrition hunger

Hunger and poverty are so intertwined that reports concerning one have implications for the other, and a palpable common factor is food security. The release of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 2021, on the eve of the observance of World Food Day (16 October), and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (17 October) has naturally generated both anxieties and resentment. While anxieties are understandably pervasive across regions and countries, the resentment has come, this time, from an emerging economy in South Asia—India—which has high stakes in the global economy with its collaboration and partnerships with a large number of stakeholders. This, however, does not mean that the economy at the macro level is doing badly, notwithstanding pressures of global recession and the pandemic. It is yet critically important what countries such as India are doing at the micro level where the link between poverty and hunger is so obvious.

The United Nations has already come out with reports that as much as 842 million people across countries are undernourished and “almost all of them live in developing countries,” such as in regions like Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. According to the UN, “the COVID-19 pandemic that gripped the world during the past year has resulted in reversing decades of progress in the fight against poverty and extreme poverty.”  Quoting from the World Bank data, it says that “between 88 and 115 million people are being pushed into poverty as a result of the crisis, with the majority of the new extreme poor being found in South Asian and Sub-Saharan countries where poverty rates are already high.” The UN predicted that in 2021, “this number is expected to have risen to between 143 and 163 million. These ‘new poor’ will join the ranks of the 1.3 billion people already living in multidimensional and persistent poverty who saw their pre-existing deprivations aggravated during the global pandemic.”

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), more than 3 billion people (nearly 40 per cent of the world population) cannot afford a healthy diet. This happens when the world’s agri-food system employs 1 billion people, more than any other sector. FAO says that small holder farmers produce more than 33 per cent of the world’s food, despite challenges including poverty, and a lack of access to finance.  FAO also underlines that   governments “need to both repurpose old policies and adopt new ones that foster the sustainable production of affordable nutritious foods and promote farmer participation.” It also says that policies “should promote equality and learning, drive innovation, boost rural incomes, offer safety nets to smallholders and build climate resilience. They also need to consider the multiple linkages between areas affecting food systems including education, health, energy, social protection, finance and more, and make solutions fit together.”

Does this happen in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia? While the year-long farmers’ agitation in India is an indication of the ground level reality and burgeoning anxieties, the scenario in Africa is predictably grim. It is in this context that GHI 2021 holds significance, for countries like India.

Global Hunger Index and India

According to the GHI Report, India occupies 101th position in the hunger index, a further deterioration from 2020 rank (94). What is more disappointing for the policy circles in New Delhi is that India is lagging behind its neighbours in South Asia such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. GHI—prepared by the Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide and Germany’s Welt Hunger Hilfe—revealed that 18 countries, including China, Brazil and Kuwait, come on the top of the ranking, with GHI scores of less than five. The GHI characterised the condition of hunger in India as ‘alarming.’ GHI sought to analyse data from 135 countries, but only 116 countries provided sufficient data.

The GHI considered four major indicators for score analysis—undernourishment; child wasting or the share of children under the age of five who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition; child stunting or the number of under-5 children who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition; and child mortality. According to the report, wasting among children in India grew from 17.1 per cent between 1998 and 2002 to 17.3 per cent between 2016 and 2020. “People have been severely hit by covid-19 and the pandemic-related restrictions in India, the country with the highest child-wasting rate worldwide.” The Report further said that though other countries in the region such as Nepal (76), Bangladesh (76), Myanmar (71) and Pakistan (92) are also placed in the ‘alarming’ hunger list, they have managed better at feeding its citizens than India. This obviously angered New Delhi. The Statement issued by India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development says:

“It is shocking to find that the Global Hunger Report 20201 has lowered the rank of India on the basis of FAO estimate on proportion of undernourished population, which is found to be devoid of ground reality and facts and suffers from serious methodological issues. The publishing agencies of the Global Hunger Report, Concern Worldwide and Welt Hunger Hilfe, have not done their due diligence before releasing the report.”

Terming the methodology employed by FAO as ‘unscientific,’ the Ministry alleged that these agencies “based their assessment on the results of a ‘four question’ opinion poll, which was conducted telephonically by Gallup. There is no scientific methodology to measure undernourishment like availability of food grains per capita during the period.” The statement further said that the scientific measurement of undernourishment “would require measurement of weight and Height, whereas the methodology involved here is based on Gallup poll based on pure telephonic estimate of the population.” According to the Ministry, the agencies completely disregarded “Government’s massive effort to ensure food security of the entire population during the covid period, verifiable data on which are available. The opinion poll does not have a single question on whether the respondent received any food support from the Government or other sources. The representativeness of even this opinion poll is doubtful for India and other countries.”

It also said that both GHI 2021 and FAO report on The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 have completely ignored some glaring facts available in public domain, pertaining to schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojna (PMGKAY) and Atma Nirbhar Bharat Scheme (ANBS). Under PMGKAY, the government “made allocation of food grains @ 5 kg per person per month free of cost for around 80 Crore (800 million) beneficiaries of the 36 States/UTs covered under National Food Security Act (Antyodaya Anna Yojana and Priority Households) including those covered under Direct Benefit Transfer for the period April to November 2O2O and again for the period May to November 2021.” In 2O2O, 3.22 crore (32.2 million) metric tons of food grains and in 2021, about 3.28 crore (32.8 million) metric tons of food grains were allocated free of cost under PMGKAY scheme to approximately 80 Crore (800 million) NFSA beneficiaries. Besides food grains, pulses were provided @ 1 kg per household per month for the period April to November 2020 free of cost to all beneficiaries under NFSA covering 19.4 Crore (194 million) households. The Ministry also noted that under ANBS, the government made allocation of about 8 lakh (800 thousand) metric tons of additional free of cost food grains covering all the States/UTs for migrants/stranded migrants who were neither covered under NFSA nor State Scheme PDS cards, @ 5 kg per person per month free of cost for a period of two months, May and June 2020.

GHI, however, stated that while India fared better in indicators such as the under-5 mortality rate, prevalence of stunting among children and incidence of undernourishment due to inadequate food continued to be high. The report indicated that food security is under challenge on multiple fronts. It highlighted that deteriorating conflict, weather fluctuations related to global climate change, and the economic and health challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic are all causing hunger. It said that “since 2000, India has made substantial progress, but there are still areas of concern, particularly regarding child nutrition. India’s GHI score has decreased from a 2000 GHI score of 38.8 points—considered alarming—to a 2021 GHI score of 27.5—considered serious. The proportion of undernourished in the population and the under-five child mortality rate are now at relatively low levels. While child stunting has seen a significant decrease—from 54.2 percent in 1998–1999 to 34.7 percent in 2016–2018—it is still considered very high. At 17.3 percent—according to the latest data—India has the highest child wasting rate of all countries covered in the GHI. This rate is slightly higher than it was in 1998–1999, when it was 17.1 percent.”

The report also noted that “it is difficult to be optimistic in 2021 because the forces driving hunger are overpowering good intentions and lofty goals. Among the most powerful and toxic of these forces are conflict, climate change, and covid-19—three Cs that threaten to wipe out any progress that has been made against hunger in recent years,” the report added.

As the GHI report appeared, the CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury came down heavily against the Union Government saying that while “food grains rotting in central godowns, mass hunger grows.” He said that in 2014 when Modi became prime minister India ranked at 55. In 2020, India “slipped to rank 94. Now we rank 101/116 countries.”

It may be recalled that months back, India had proposed to help the World Food Programme (WFP) replenish its foodgrain stock from overflowing state-owned granaries to assist the organization’s efforts in providing food to the most vulnerable global population amid the covid-19 crisis. The proposal was in reply to an appeal by WTO nations to lift ban on shipment of foodgrain for humanitarian aid. A Live Mint report said that in recent years, the government’s record procurement had led to burgeoning central pool stocks at 2.5 times the existing buffer norms. Till September, for instance, Food Corporation of India had central stocks of 22.2 million metric tonnes of rice and 47.8 million metric tonnes of wheat. The food grains Stock in Central Pool for the years 2016-2021 is now available in the public domain.

A major question being raised is whether the Public Distribution System (PDS), which played an important role in providing relief to people in India, is any more ‘viable and sustainable’ under neoliberal policy regime and its pressures, beyond this critical period of pandemic. While the peasant population in India is under tremendous pressure of ‘contracting out’ farming, without any state protection, the accumulation of problems emerging from the situation of state withdrawal will be so critical. Hunger caused by poverty will naturally be higher notwithstanding robust schemes put in place from time to time. The peasantry in India is already a victim of crop price fluctuations, high inflation and the rising cost of living. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) for 2021 is therefore a matter of concern insofar as its forewarning has a bearing on policymaking, beyond the politics of resentment.

The article first appeared in Eurasia Review.

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He had also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations in MGU.


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