Rising hunger to shrinking freedom, the many elephants in Modi govt's room

With every new report coming out that shows that things are slipping, this government’s response has been to question its credibility. BJP wants people to believe that this government can do no wrong

This year, India has fallen another seven places in Global Hunger Index to land at 101, even behind Nepal & B'desh
This year, India has fallen another seven places in Global Hunger Index to land at 101, even behind Nepal & B'desh

Aakar Patel

In 2015, India’s ranking on the Global Hunger Index was 55. Last year, in 2020, it fell 39 places to land at 94. India went behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The index tracks undernourishment, child stunting (low height for age), child wasting (low weight for age) and child mortality (number of children who die before age 5).

At that time the government did not accept the data (which is collected mostly by agencies linked to the United Nations and the World Bank). In Parliament the government had an unusual defence of its performance. Agriculture minister Parshottam Rupala said that in India "whenever a street dog gives birth in our village, even though it bites, our women provide them with sheer (sweet dish). So…we should not be sensitive to such reports.

“As far as these surveys are concerned, even healthy and strong children are counted…there should be awareness in society, our dynamic minister Smriti (Irani) ji has started a Jan Andolan, and 13 crore events have been done."

Now this year, India has fallen another seven places to land at 101. Only 15 nations like Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and other African countries are worse off than India. This time the government has again refuted the finding that the proportion of undernourished Indians has gone from 14% to 15.3%.

The government has said: "The report completely disregards government's massive effort to ensure food security of the entire population during the Covid period, verifiable data on which are available. The opinion poll does not have a single question on whether the respondent received any food support from the government or other sources. The representativeness of even this opinion poll is doubtful for India and other countries.”

The government appears to be saying that it is doing its job by providing free grain (five kilos of rice or wheat and one kilo of daal) to 60% of the population or 80 crore people. This is true, and it has been doing this since last year. The question is why are so many Indians queueing up each month for free ration? The answer can only be that they are hungry and need it.

Rising hunger to shrinking freedom, the many elephants in Modi govt's room

As I wrote last week, the Indian government’s own National Family Health Survey of 2019–20 says that things have deteriorated on the malnourishment front. In fact, in Assam, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and West Bengal, a higher percentage of children were wasted in 2019–20 compared to 2005–06. Meaning 15 years of progress has been ceded.

More than half the surveyed states reported every third child below five suffering from chronic malnourishment. The government survey put out data for 22 states and union territories. Its analysis of 10 major states showed that anaemia among children was higher in all the 10 states in 2019–20 compared to 2015–16. In 7 of the 10 States analysed, a higher percentage of children were underweight (low weight for age) in 2019–20 compared to 2015–16.

This is a crisis we need to acknowledge and work on. It is a difficult problem and will require the Union, state governments and civil society, meaning NGOs, to work together.

What is happening instead is that India has become defensive about every finding that shows a deterioration in governance. When The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index showed that India had fallen 26 places from 27 to 53, the government refused to engage in parliament. It said the issue is "very sensitive in nature” but also “trivial”.

The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom last year marked India as one of the 15 nations globally as ‘countries of particular concern’. This was because Indian minorities were under assault. The government said “its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new”.

This year again the USCIRF has returned the same findings, retained India as a country of particular concern and recommended sanctions against Indian individuals. When Freedom House demoted India from being ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ and Kashmir from being ‘partly free’ to ‘not free’, India said “the political judgements of Freedom House are inaccurate and distorted” and "for example on the Covid-19 situation, there is a widespread appreciation in the world of our response”.

With every new report coming out that shows that things are slipping, we have become creative in trying to show how everyone else is wrong. When the Global Terrorism Index showed that India was stuck as the eighth most affected nation on earth, the Niti Aayog questioned how the organisation could "provide country wise national peace reports with just 24 staff members and six volunteers”.

On four dozen indicators India has fallen since 2014. Our response in all of these has not been to engage with the facts as many other nations have done. Our response is to say that the findings are wrong because under this government India can do no wrong.

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