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Persistent hunger

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

India's dismal ranking on the basis of the global hunger index (GHI), compiled by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), is a matter if shame, but also somewhat intriguing. The country, which takes pride in its remarkable transformation from ship-to-mouth existence to having been till recently a net food exporter, has been ranked at a lowly No. 96 among 119 developing countries, well below all its neighbouring countries with the solitary exception of Bangladesh. Even much poorer countries like Nepal and Myanmar and an economy like Pakistan have been ranked above India, indicating that the incidence of hunger there is far lower than in India. Equally worrisome is the fact unveiled in the IFPRI's report, entitled "The World's Most Deprived", that the fight against hunger that produced good results between 1992 and 1997, lost steam subsequently and failed to show any further improvement in the nutrition status till 2003, the period covered by this report. The only consolation, if it can be viewed as such, is that child malnutrition has reduced by some 13 percentage points and the under-five mortality rate has come down by about 30 per cent between 1992 and 2003. But that is cold comfort as the overall incidence of hunger remains high, with the bulk of the poor who live on less than a dollar a day not getting even 2,200 calories, deemed to be the minimum daily calorie intake needed for light activity. Besides, the share of food in poor households' budgets remains as high as 64.2 per cent, leaving little for meeting other essential needs.
While the statistics are grim and such cross-country comparisons serve to provide useful barometers, the fact also is that many such surveys and rankings are often viewed with a degree of scepticism. The IFPRI is of course a reliable, publicly funded, global body, and what sets this index apart from other instruments for measuring hunger is that it does not rely only on calorie intake but also takes into account factors like economic access to food, shortfalls in the nutritional status of children and child mortality attributable to malnutrition. Still, the intriguing part of this survey is that it shows no progress on hunger alleviation between 1997 and 2003, when the country's grain coffers were virtually brimming over and when the government had started a food distribution programme to cater specifically to families below the poverty line. This could be attributed to the deceleration in economic as well as agricultural growth during this period. But, at the same time, the fact that the country was net surplus in food, albeit at the macro level, and also a net exporter of food during that period cannot be wholly disregarded. This paradox could be a reflection of the flawed and non-inclusive economic growth pattern that many commentators have pointed to, and to static farm incomes.
What seems clear is that the economic access of the poor to food has not improved. This can also be interpreted as the failure of the philosophy of launching directs attack on poverty through employment- and income-generation programmes, conceived first by Indira Gandhi for her "Garibi Hatao" campaign and pursued since then by successive governments. On another level, it exposes the disabilities of the country's public distribution system to reach the target beneficiaries. Even schemes like Antyodaya, aimed at supplying highly subsidised foodgrain to the poorest of the poor, do not seem to have produced the desired results. It must be hoped that the government will draw the correct lessons from the IFPRI's findings.


First Published: Fri, November 16 2007. 00:00 IST