New Delhi: India has been ranked 111 among 125 countries in the Global Hunger Index report released by two European agencies on October 12, 2023. India slipped four positions as compared to last year.
The only countries ranking lower than India are Timor-Leste, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Haiti, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Chad, Niger, Lesotho, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Madagascar, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Burundi and Somalia.
All these countries, which India has barely fared better than, are very small economies as compared to India. India is among one of the fastest growing ones.
Every other assessed country, besides these nations, had better outcomes than India.
India stands in a group of 40 countries where the scale of global hunger has been termed as ‘serious’. The overall GHI score of India, according to the current report is, 28.7. The calculation of this score is done on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the worse the performance of the country.
‘Concern Worldwide’ and ‘Welt Hungerhilfe’, two NGOs from Ireland and Germany, respectively, have come out with the report. According to the publishers, it is a peer-reviewed report which has been prepared annually from 2006.
The report says that high scores may be a symptom of several underlying problems relating to the nutritional status of the country. “For some countries, high scores are driven by high rates of undernourishment, reflecting a lack of calories for large swathes of the population,” it says.
Four factors were taken into account for calculating the GHI scores: undernourishment (refers to the entire population – both children and adults); child stunting (share of children who have low height for their age); child under-5 mortality; and child wasting (children who have low weight for their height). All these indicators are components of the universally agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The report goes on to add that for some countries, a high GHI score may also reflect acute malnutrition among children and their poor nutrition levels, in addition to other “extreme challenges facing the population”.
“Broadly speaking, then, a high GHI score can be evidence of a lack of food, a poor-quality diet, inadequate child care-giving practices, an unhealthy environment, or a combination of these factors,” the report explains.
All data sets presented in this report are secondary data and sourced from various published reports.
India’s performance on four parameters
According to the report, India has the highest child ‘wasting’ (low weight for height) rate across the world, at 18.7%, reflecting acute undernutrition. In fact, ‘wasting’ is considered to be the worst form and indicator of all forms of child under-nutrition.
If a country has more than 15% of the children ‘wasted’, it has been marked as ‘very high’ level of concern in the report. India is the only country, thus, where the wasting has been put in the category of ‘very high’.
As far as childhood stunting (low height for age) goes, India, again, comes in the category of ‘very high’ risk countries. More than 35% children have been marked stunted in India, although several other African countries and some east-Asian countries perform worse than India on this parameter.
With about 16.6% of the overall population undernourished, India’s levels of undernourishment have been marked as of ‘medium’ risk. And, in under-5 mortality, India has been categorised as a country with ‘low risk’, with about 3.1% of children dying before the age of five.
The prevalence of anaemia among women aged 15-24 has been reported as a major problem for the country. More than 50% of women and adolescents are anaemic in the country – one of the highest across the world.
The Indian government has rejected this report this year too, like it has done on previous occasions. Issuing a statement on October 12, the government has termed the methodology of the report preparation faulty, and has raised concerns about the selection of the four parameters 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,” the government said.
“The fourth and most important indicator ‘Proportion of Undernourished (PoU) population’ is based on an opinion poll conducted on a very small sample size of 3000,” the government claimed.
Now, this data on ‘undernourishment’ has been taken from the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, also known as the SOFI report, prepared by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Children’s Fund and International Fund (UNICEF) and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
GHI report makers have denied the allegations of the Indian government. In an emailed response to The Wire on October 13, they said the Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) rate – which the Indian government objected to while discrediting their report – is just one-third part of the total GHI score.
They go on to explain that PoU is arrived at, not just by the poll conducted over the phone, as the Indian government tried to indicate, but is based on several other underlying parameters.
“It takes into account the average per capita availability of food as obtained through carefully constructed food balance sheets. Food balance sheets are based primarily on data officially reported by the member countries, including India [Emphasis supplied],” said Miriam Wiemers, senior policy advisor at Welthungerhilfe, one of the NGOs that made the report.
In other words, PoU – which the Indian government objected to – was partly arrived at using data sources officially given by the Indian government only.
The second component of PoU is the calorie requirements of the population, Wiemers explained. “And it takes into account the distribution of calorie intake in the population as estimated through official consumption surveys conducted by governments,” the advisor added.
Now, Wiemers says, “The latest household consumption survey data that India has released were collected way back in 2011.”
“When governments do not provide recent consumption survey data, changes in the distribution of calorie intake in the population are estimated using the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) survey data,” he added.
And, therefore, for collecting FIES data, polling data was used.
“The information from the Gallup World Poll only constitutes a part of the Prevalence of Undernourishment indicator value, which, in turn, is only one component of the GHI score,” Wiemers goes on to add.
The Indian government also cast doubts over using stunting and wasting as two indicators for the GHI report preparation. The government says ‘hunger’ may cause stunting and wasting, but they could also be a result of factors like sanitation, genetics, utilisation of food intake etc. Therefore, it raised questions over using ‘hunger’ as something it termed as ‘causative/outcome’ for stunting and wasting, for the GHI scores.
The Government of India also went on to make a rather unusual claim: “There is hardly any evidence that the fourth indicator, namely, child mortality is an outcome of hunger,” it said. There is though a lot of other evidence to suggest hunger does lead to death in children in many ways.
“Malnourished children, particularly those with severe acute malnutrition, have a higher risk of death from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria. Nutrition-related factors contribute to about 45% of deaths in children under 5 years of age,” says the World Health Organisation.
The government also contested the childhood wasting figures of India. It said the government’s ‘poshan’ tracker said 7.3% of the children were ‘wasted’ as against GHI figures of 18.7%. An inter-agency UN exercise had estimated the prevalence of wasting at 18.7% – the source of GHI’s wasting rate for India. The government’s own National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 data for 2019-21 had said the corresponding figure was 19.3%.
This report gave GHI scores of 136 nations and ranked 125. Responding to The Wire’s query if any other government, like India, had also objected to its findings, Wiemers said no other government has disputed the GHI methodology, as such.
“The Global Hunger Index methodology has long been established and tested. We highly value the quality of data and analysis available to us and constructive proposals to improve it,” he added.
The GHI report is not an outlier to point out India’s poor performance in nutrition. The SOFI reports have done so consistently over the past. The SOFI-2023 report pointed out that 74.1% of the Indian population is unable to afford a healthy diet. Only countries like Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina-Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea and Guinea Bissau had a higher share of their respective populations than India which were not able to afford a healthy diet.
The SOFI-2023 report also said 233.9 million (24 crore) people in India are ‘undernourished’. Undernourishment, according to the SOFI report, is defined as the condition of an individual whose habitual food consumption is insufficient to provide, on average, the amount of dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active and healthy life.
Note: The story was updated to include the response of one of the two agencies which prepared the report at 7:10 pm on October 13, 2023. The story, originally published at 11 am on October 13, 2023, was republished at 7:10 pm.