ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Hunger Conundrum

India has to accelerate efforts to improve the nutrition levels of the population.

 

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) ranks India 101 out of 116 countries in its 2021 report. Classifying countries into five categories, namely low, moderate, serious, alarming, and extremely alarming, based on the intensity of the food deficit, the report slots India in the serious category. The trends show that India’s GHI scores have steadily improved by close to one-third in the last two decades. However, India’s GHI ranking continues to plummet as other nations have made more substantial progress in improving nutritional levels that has caused a further fall in India’s global standing. In fact, gains in India’s GHI score lag behind that of countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Mongolia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and other two dozen-odd countries.

Unfortunately, different governments that have been at the helm of affairs at different times have failed to adequately respond to this huge crisis and accelerate improvement in the nutritional intake of the people. Instead, the present government has tried to counter the findings of the report by labelling it as unscientific and claiming that it fails to take note of the massive efforts made to ensure food security. The response is pathetic as it fails to note that GHI scores are mainly based on four component indicators, that is, undernourishment, child wasting (too thin), child stunting (too short), and child mortality, all of which reflect poor nutrition and caloric deficiencies.

As the report indicates, the undernourishment levels capture the deficiency in the overall nutritional level of the population. Similarly, the child-specific indicators point to the status of a vulnerable section of the population, which can have a long-term bearing on the health, cognitive development, and productivity levels in the economy. Importantly, the report has also tried to minimise the impact of any errors in the measurement of any of the four component indicators by combining all four to build the GHI.

The trends in the four component indicators indicate that India’s gains have indeed been marginal in the last two decades. Though the proportion of the undernourished in the population has slowly declined from the peak levels of around 20% in 2006, the fall has been stalled at around 15% and then it has slowly perked up once again. The trends in the level of wasting in children below five years have also been similar, with the earlier gains now coming under a growing threat of reversion.

Although the recent trends in the stunting of children have been more positive, with the numbers moving down from around 50% at the start of the millennium, it is still at an unacceptably high level of around 35% now. Only in the case of child mortality has there been a steady and significant improvement, with the numbers now slipping to around one-third of the peak level of 10%.

Moreover, the current scenario on the food front is not too encouraging. A cursory glance at the numbers shows that while India’s share of the global population is only 18%, its share of the population affected by hunger is disproportionately larger. Thus, India now accounts for almost one-third of the global undernourished population, and almost half the global wasting in children under the age of five years. In fact, India has the highest child wasting rate in the world. Stunting rates in some of the outlier states in India are similar to those in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Tragically, India accounts for almost a quarter of the stunted children worldwide. And the country’s share of anaemic women in the reproductive age group is a substantial one-third of the global numbers pointing to extensive gender discrimination.

These numbers make it rather clear that India’s food policies have failed to adequately respond to the growing nutrient needs of the people and meet the challenges of the changing times. The determinants of malnutrition are multifactorial. There is more to it than just the availability of basic cereals as is being claimed by the Indian government. There have to be adequate amounts of vegetable, milk and poultry products, fish, and meat in the diet. Moreover, the global experience is that nutritional levels are often substantially lower in countries with extensively high levels of income and consumption inequality. India, unfortunately, fits the bill in all these aspects.

However, it is not that the government is unaware of these setbacks. It has, in fact, responded with half-hearted measures to improve the nutritional levels. Programmes have been implemented to improve the availability of pulses and edible oils, primarily guided by the objective of reducing imports. Active interventions by different governments have also almost tripled the yield of nutritious crops like finger millets and contributed to food security. The government has also made efforts to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing by rolling out a robust legislation in the early 1990s. All these have restrained growth in the sales of baby food. Promotional campaigns have promoted exclusive dependence of breast milk for infants to around 55%.

However, improving the overall nutritional levels of the population requires more substantial government intervention on the food front. Nutrition levels are majorly affected by the education level of women and income of households. Other determinants are the duration of breastfeeding and antenatal care. Food policies also have to be more nutrition-sensitive. It must include the supply of nutrient-rich food through the public distribution system. Improved water supply and sanitation can help prevent undernourishment. All in all, the government has to immediately prioritise programmes that enhance the nutrition security of the people.

 

Updated On : 30th Oct, 2021

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