Right to Food Campaign flags the alarming situation of hunger in the country and the lack of adequate response by the government

hunger

The Right to Food Campaign held a press conference in Delhi on October 21, 2022 highlighting the situation of hunger in India, the inadequate policy response of the government, the Global Hunger Index report, the status of compliance with the directions of the Supreme Court’s regarding enhancing food security in the migrant workers case and other issues regarding gaps in MGNREGA and social security policies. The press conference was addressed by Anjali Bhardwaj, Dipa Sinha, Harsh Mander, Nikhil Dey and Vandana Prasad.

On the Global Hunger Index

The Global Hunger Report 2022 ranks India at 107 among 121 countries. The ranks are not comparable over the years. However, each year since the report has been released in 2006 India has ranked extremely poorly highlighting that hunger and malnutrition remains a serious concern in the country. The current situation post-covid is even worse and is not entirely reflected in the report as the data are not available.

The Government of India has rejected the report stating, “The index is an erroneous measure of hunger and suffers from serious methodological issues.” We find that this response of the government is diverting the issue away from the situation of hunger and food insecurity in the country.

One of the objections to the index that the government has stated is regarding the child related indicators used – “Three out of the four indicators used for calculation of the index are related to the health of Children and cannot be representative of the entire population.” It is unfortunate that the serious issue of child malnutrition is being trivialised in such a manner. High levels of child malnutrition (stunting and wasting) in India are a reflection of food insecurity in households, poor dietary diversity, lack of maternal and child care services, low status of women and inadequate access to health and sanitation. It is indeed a matter of concern that over 35% of children in the country are stunted (low height for age) and 19% children are wasted (low weight for height) according to the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-2021). The WHO prevalence cut-off values for public health significance state that stunting above 30% and wasting above 15% is “very high”.

Dr. Vandana Prasad said that such indexes point to the overall concerning situation of hunger, malnutrition and poor health outcomes for people, especially children. She said wasting, malnutrition in children is not just having inadequate quantity of food in the body but a combination of lack of access to adequate and nutritious food and lack of access to health facilities, which adversely affects their physical and cognitive development.

The second objection raised is that, “The fourth and most important indicator estimate of Proportion of Undernourished (PoU) population is based on an opinion poll conducted on a very small sample size of 3000.” This we find is not entirely true. The FIES data that is based on the poll is only one of the many variables that go into the estimation of the PoU, along with data on average per capita availability of food supply obtained through food balance sheets. As defined by the FAO, “to compute an estimate of the prevalence of undernourishment in a population, the probability distribution of habitual dietary energy intake levels (expressed in kcal per person per day) for the average individual is modelled as a parametric probability density function”. In this model, data from the FIES is used to get an indication of the variation in dietary energy consumption in recent years in India due to the absence of consumption data after 2011. If anything, what is pointed out is to the gaps in our data systems where the consumption expenditure survey of the NSS which is an important source of data on poverty, inequality and food consumption is not available for over a decade (the survey done in 2017-18 has been rejected by the government and the report was not officially released).

In this context, Dipa Sinha said, in the absence of official data on hunger and food insecurity, we have to rely on independent field surveys and other information which clearly point to a concerning situation in the country. While the results from these surveys may not be representative of the district, state or country, they do, however, tell a story of deprivation of lakhs of households in similar situations as the survey respondents. They also are validated by the national data on unemployment and stagnant wages. The Hunger Watch surveys conducted by the Right to Food campaign for instance clearly show that there has been a worsening in food security both in quantity and quality compared to the pre-covid period for many (41%).

The government also objected to the GHI on the grounds that it “ignore efforts made by the Government to ensure food security for the population especially during the Covid Pandemic.” There are huge gaps in the government’s response to the distress caused by the pandemic. Anjali Bhardwaj said that the Supreme Court in June 2021 had given comprehensive directions while disposing the migrant workers case including a direction to the Central government to undertake exercise under Section 9 of the National Food Security Act, 2013 to re-determine the total number of persons to be covered in Rural and Urban areas of the State under the Public Distribution System of NFSA as the coverage is still based on 2011 census and does not take into account the increase in population since then. However, she said the government till date has not increased the quota which is leading to exclusion of about 10-11 crore people from the Public Distribution System. Every time the government has extended PMGKAY it has acknowledged the economic distress and hunger among people and yet has not made any provision for providing rations to people without ration cards.

Harsh Mander pointed out that all evidence points to increasing inequality and poverty in the country. He said the response of the government is marked by sheer insensitivity of the condition of millions of people who have been deeply impacted by the adverse impact of livelihood during the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns and the runaway inflation.

The other major intervention that could help people in these times of distress is the MGNREGA. However, Nikhil Dey said NREGA has been squeezed in unprecedented ways. The financial budget for this year was 73000 crores against an allocation and expenditure of 1 lakh 11000 crores during COVID. As a result there are only 6 thousand and 300 crores left to spend on NREGA in the next 5 months(Nov-March).  NREGA’s labour budget has also been slashed to 230 crore person days which is almost 1/3rd less than what was spent and asked for by the states in the previous year. On top of this there are wage payments pending liabilities over 2300 crores with over 1.2 crore persons facing delay in wage payments. The distress is felt most in the state of West Bengal which has payments pending since December 2021 and no work been allowed on the pretext of supposed corruption and lack of social audit are not being used to take action against officials but to punish people by not making fund releases to them leading to hunger, distress , migration and debt.

All the speakers drew attention to the plight of people facing loss of livelihoods, low wages, inflation and hunger. They hoped that the government will significantly enhance the policy response to address the alarming situation in the country.

Email: righttofoodindia@gmail.com | Web: www.righttofoodcampaign.in


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