For a country that prides itself as being the world’s second-fastest growing, it has to be humbling to be ranked 67 out of 81 countries in terms of global food security status. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) combines three equally weighted indicators, namely undernourishment of the population, child undernutrition and child mortality and puts India at par with sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to malnutrition, and Bangladesh and Timor-Leste in terms of the highest prevalence of underweight children younger than five—more than 40%. India’s NFHS3 survey in 2005-06 has more such data for those who are interested.
Much of this is puzzling given India’s long tradition of programmes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme and given the current government’s enthusiasm for pro-poor projects. We are sitting on 64 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks while countries reliant on international food aid are sitting above us on GHI. India’s per capita income is higher than that of most sub-Saharan countries, but not its GHI score. Some scepticism of the index is warranted.
Arvind Panagariya of Columbia University makes the point that there is a problem with the reference sample that is used by the WHO. He uses a restrictive sample drawn from NFHS3, a sample of ‘elite’ children as it were, and finds that 15% of these are stunted vis-à-vis the reference sample! How else, he asks, do we explain that countries like Lesotho have life expectancy at birth of just 48 years compared with India’s 65, but enjoy lower rates of child malnutrition? A second problem is that we don’t yet have nutrition data post-2006. As Surjit Bhalla points out, NSS small sample survey results from July 2007-2008 underline that poverty declined at about three times the pace of the previous 22 years in the three years following 2004-05. He says this means India met the MDG target of 15%-poor-by-2015 a decade ahead of schedule! This suggests India may sport a dramatically different colour in next year’s GHI map.