Is widespread hunger in India for real or is it Indians dieting?

Remember how when India was doing well in reducing poverty & hunger in UPA years, a certain chief minister informed us that there was no malnutrition in his state, Gujarat, – just young girls dieting

Is widespread hunger in India for real or is it Indians dieting?

Ranjona Banerji

Bad enough that in 2020, India ranked 94th out of 107 countries on the Global Hunger Index. This year, 2021, we have dropped down to 101 out of 116 countries. We have fared significantly worse than our closest neighbours Sri Lanka (65), Myanmar (71), Nepal, Bangladesh (both 76), and Pakistan (92).

The Global Hunger Index is prepared by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe and is a peer-reviewed annual report. It uses available data to measure hunger and focuses on categories of undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality. India comes under the category of “serious” with a “score” of 27.5.

Although India has done better over a wider time scale, we seem to have plateaued in the last few years. The most dramatic fall in all the four categories is from the reports of 2006 to 2012.

Categories like wasting in children under 5 and the proportion of undernourished in the population have seen a slight rise in the current 2021 report. Figures for 2016-2020 demonstrate how bad the situation now is in India, and the report mentions the terrible consequences of Covid-19 lockdowns.

The proportion of undernourished Indians was 38.8 in 2000, 37.4 in 2006, 28.8 in 2012 and 27.5 in 2021. The years in question tell a very clear story, unpalatable as it may be to some analysts and cheerleaders. The most dramatic drop in hunger in India came in the UPA years (between 2006-2012). There is no way of sugar-coating this or saying it politely in case his majesty and his cohorts get upset.

The pandemic worsened a bad situation. And how did the Narendra Modi government respond when thousands of Indians hit the roads in the summer of 2020, when migrant workers and their families walked home for hundreds of kilometres in the grinding heat because work, livelihood and roofs over their heads had vanished in the first lockdown?

At first, it pretended nothing happened, then it denied in court that there was anyone walking on the highways and eventually in a disgruntled, disdainful manner threw out some scraps from its many-trillion “ton” treasury (I quote the Union Home Minister Amit Shah here).

Is widespread hunger in India for real or is it Indians dieting?

Of the many reasons that the UPA and Sonia Gandhi were excoriated by the BJP and “independent” commentators, there was the dependence on human rights activists and NGOs when it came to formulating social welfare programmes. And yet as the data from the Global Hunger Index shows, some of those policies worked. India’s disgraceful track record in hunger was on a downward trajectory.

You may even remember that it was in these very UPA years as India was doing better that a certain chief minister of Gujarat informed us that there was no malnutrition in his state – just young girls dieting. The arrogance is matched by the ignorance and finally now in 2021, with that CM as PM, callous indifference.

Which is reflected in our society at various levels. From the highest commentariat (how dare woolly-headed Lefties and similar compassionate anti-nationals advise a government on improving the lot of hungry Indians) to the easily-provoked violent mobs fed on hatred and Otherisation, Indian society would rather hope that the poor and needy and underprivileged and forgotten would just sort their lives out.

As the Global Hunger Index report does not fail to point out, India has a large proportion of rich people, its enviably high proportion of 84 billionaires on the Forbes list, where one percent own 50 percent of the nation’s wealth. This India also has the second largest number of under-nourished people in the world.

I can see the faces of the commentariat curling up with outrage as they confront this report. From those who feel that winning an election justifies all incompetence and the sort of former CEOs who said “don’t bore me with stories of the poor suffering” as the effects of Modi’s demonic demonetisation scheme wreaked havoc in 2016 and since.

This year’s Nobel prize for Economics then will have come as a further blow to our brainless, heartless “experts”. David Card together with the late Alan Kreuger changed the erroneous perception that an increase in minimum wages would lead to job losses. His fellow winners Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens worked on methodologies to make such studies more accessible to governments reluctant to increase minimum wages.

There is a real world out there, outside our doorsteps where competence is measured not in hatred but in improvement of the lives of the worst off. How’s the view from behind your blindfold?

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