The 2020 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report was released on October 16. India has a GHI of 27.2, which places it in 94th position on a list of 107 countries. The GHI tracks hunger at regional, national and global levels using standardised scores for four indicators: undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality, all on a 100-point severity scale.
In 2019, India was ranked 102 on a list of 117 countries, doing better than its neighbouring nations. But this year, India’s rank takes it below Pakistan and Bangladesh – ranked 88th and 75th, respectively; in fact, India has fared better than only Afghanistan (99) in its neighbourhood. Perhaps more worryingly, the GHI calculation did not account for the effect of COVID-19 on hunger and malnutrition. If India’s situation is already ‘serious’, as the authors of the report wrote, without this consideration, the actual situation on the ground may be grim.
India took some drastic measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, including imposing the world’s strictest lockdown, thus exacerbating many existing socio-economic disparities in the country. In addition, the country’s GDP shrank by a stunning 23.9% in the April-June quarter, with multiple downstream effects – including a considerably weakened MSME sector and an aggravated food insecurity with potential long-term effects. The sudden imposition of the nationwide lockdown on March 24 also triggered mass unemployment, forcing lakhs of migrant workers to return to their native places, many of them without food and most without livelihood prospects.
The situation became worse when food production and transport had to be halted in many places. In India, many migrant labourers move to rural areas during the harvest seasons. Smallholder farmers also rent harvesting equipment at this time, since doing so is cheaper than buying them. Unfortunately, the lockdown hit work for the Rabi crop, precipitating labour and equipment shortages. In April, after the Rabi harvest, farmers prepare for the Kharif crop in May. The lockdown as well as the epidemic itself disrupted production capacity for farm inputs and pushed up market prices, rendering these resources unaffordable. Recall the images on TV of trucks full of agricultural produce simply abandoned on interstate highways.
In addition, as schools remained shut, 120 million children in over 1.2 million schools were unable to avail food under the midday meal scheme.
Various groups kicked off different initiatives to tackle the consequences of this crisis. The government allocated additional funds through the targeted public distribution system, and took steps to restore the benefits of the midday meal scheme. Various NGOs and civil society organisations engaged the community to mitigate the worst effects of the epidemic and its effects and help ensure food remained accessible to those who needed it. The Kudumbashree network in Kerala, after being asked to run community kitchens, currently operates 1,300 such facilities across Kerala and also delivers food to COVID-19 patients at home and in hospitals.
However, laudable as these efforts were, the crisis before us was, and is, bigger. If India is to develop a higher GHI in the coming years, there are many things it can do better. For starters, there is a conspicuous need for policy actions, especially to strengthen social security schemes and to integrate them with disease surveillance systems. Coordinating with NGOs working at the grassroots and establishing public-private partnerships could boost food production, increase distribution efficiency and lower its cost – thereby improving the access and availability of food, especially to vulnerable populations.
Dr Parul Malik is a medical doctor. Prabhu Dutta Shaw is a postgraduate student pursuing a master of public health (epidemiology). Dr Arathi P. Rao is the coordinator of the MPH programme and the head of the Manipal Health Literacy Unit. All are at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.