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IS INDIA UNDERGOING A HUNGER CRISIS ?

Updated: Dec 13, 2021



EVENT DATE : 17 NOVEMBER


Shweta Kothari(SK): Let me first address the elephant in the room. India has been trailing on the Global Hunger Index( GHI) for a while now, and the government has questioned its methodology. Where do we stand today? Do you think we have come a long way, and are you of the belief that perhaps the global hunger index is not representative?


Snigdha Sahal(SS): The fact that we are in the bottom few countries in terms of hunger, is an indicator of how serious the situation is. The National Family Health Survey-5 data also indicates the same grim reality. Yes, we are making progress, but it is really slow. Are we in a crisis? Yes. Hunger is something we need to actively gear up and battle. We can do better; we have to do better.


Pulapre Balkrishnan(PB): I agree that we do have a problem for access to food for a significant proportion of the population. However, I find the Global Hunger Index a bit problematic because it brings together components which are not really commensurate. We have a problem on our hands, and it may have got a bit worse off late. I also want to add the poverty index, which maps whether you have enough calorie intake per capita, the latest figures show 27 percent poverty in India, so there’s certainly a lack of access to food. At the same time, unemployment in India has shot up to 20 percent.


Neena Bhatia(NB): The Global Hunger Index is a bit of a misnomer. Does this measure what it claims to measure? The choice of the indicators that the index uses, do not measure. Nutrition is a complex outcome of the food we eat, the sanitation with it was prepared, maternal health and other such factors. This index brings a very negative image. We should talk about this without being alarmed about the picture other’s are trying to show us.


Deepak Pental( DP): When these sorts of surveys come up, there is a nudge to discuss these important issues, which helps. Poverty relates very directly to lack of purchasing power, and that means undernourishment or even hunger at times. Technology has helped us feed people, and we must adopt sustainable measures as we go about increase our agricultural productivity. Political will needs to be there as well.


SK: How glaring is the problem as the time? Do you think there is truth to what the international surveys saying about India’s hunger problem?


SS: Food is only a part of the hunger problem. All the people who understand hunger, understand that it means multiple levels of deficiencies. For me the more factors( like poverty or gender disparity) that add to the problem, the more complex the problem becomes. We need many innovative ideas to address the severe problem.


SK: We don’t want to overlook what the government’s done either- it has launched several umbrella schemes such as the Public Distribution System, Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS), Poshan Abhiyaan and more to combat hunger and malnutrition- where are the structural deficiencies, where are we lagging?


NB: I agree that hunger and malnutrition cannot be conflated. With the kind of nutritional care that children under the age five need, women’s education and empowerment would definitely help in tackling this complex issue. The schemes are going beyond provision of food. Various ministries are coming together to address other critical factors like sanitation. The schemes are in place, but there’s only so much a government can do.


SK: For the layman’s understanding, could you highlight what other factors ( other than availability of food) cause undernourishment?


NB: So, undernourishment could result from diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, lack of sanitation or use of inadequate milk substitutes.


SK: In 2016 it was estimated that nearly 92000 crore was lost annually in farm produce weightage. Nearly 20 crore people sleep hungry every day, while 40 percent of our food goes to waste. What do you make of these glaring figures, and are we on track to achieving zero hunger by 2030?


PB: Unless there’s going to be a major change in policies, I don’t see the problem of access to food going away. I really believe the goal should be to generate enough income and employment. The problem of poverty has gotten exacerbated in the pandemic- and the government’s response has been inadequate, without enough macroeconomic stimulus. I also wanted to mention that the problem of hunger has been recognized since decades. We also don’t have to overly focus on Central government, the state governments have a crucial role to play, and that’s why there are such variations across states.


SK: One thing that naysayers continue to say is that there’s been global hit, every country has done badly. Also, aren’t we denying the very problem of hunger by questioning the methodology?


PB: Within India, academia has definitely recognized the problem. I don’t want to rely on the GHI, because it is technically problematic. It may have gotten worse in the last year and a half, based on our poverty estimator itself. Apart from Brazil, most of the major countries have done better at an macroeconomic level; they expanded public spending much much more.


SS: Couple of points I’d like to mention here- If we choose to look at our own surveys, like the NFHS, they indicate a chronic hunger problem. Also, I think there’s a huge acknowledgement of the problem, like the Poshan Abhiyan programme. I think what needs to be understood, when we say hunger, we are talking about subsets of hunger too. I think the intent of the government is right, but is it getting executed efficiently? No. Which is why collaborations are so important. We’re seeing income losses, women’s mental and physical health deteriorating- that’s something we need to talk about.


SK: Would you say that the diversification of crops not sufficient in the country? How do we confront the hidden hunger? Also, what are views on food fortification as an initiative to counter malnourishment?


DP: A large number of Indian children have protein deficiency. As far as crop diversity is concerned- there are enough crops grown in India. However, the farmers are growing an excess of cereal grains and there’s paucity of legumes, or oilseeds. I am all for food fortification, if it is done in a sensible manner, to the extent that it doesn’t start harming rather than helping. We need to increase efficiency of alternative crops, incorporate crop rotations methods. But the purchasing power problem continues to act as an obstacle in access to fruits and vegetables.


SK: Do you think the other factors that can contribute to wasting, specific to India?


NB: In fact, there are specific interventions, for example ORS or zinc supplements in cases of diarrhea to address these factors. There are 28 districts in Bihar showing improvement among many others. We really need to bring partnerships into this and ensure that the families come together. Many times, we tend to accept the worse of us, and be overcritical. We should not be in denial, but instead make use of good practices.


SK: We’re looking to become a 5 trillion-dollar economy, and we are not faring as well as our neighbours. What is the way forward?


PB: What we should focus on is human development- people are nourished, they have to have access to education, and very importantly women’s empowerment. Women’s education is very important as women are responsible for bringing the child up, and malnutrition is also often passed on from mother to child. As for the 5 trillion-dollar economy, I don’t think aggregates of incomes alone will do enough. You’d have to focus on education, health, drinking water, bringing women into the political process. Focusing on 5 trillion distracts us from human development. I’ll give you an example; Maharashtra has the highest GDP, and yet it’s spending on GDP on health. It has to with politics.


SK: Where do we need to make immediate progress?


SS: Post-covid rebuilding. The only way this can happen is if we are more open to collaborations. Now is the time to take the bricks and mortar and rebuild rebuild rebuild.


SK: Do you think public spending should be the next big thing in the government’s line of action? The rising fuel prices how will the poorest of the poor be able to sustain the commute?


The differing levels of human development is a function of the governments. I wouldn’t focus too much on the prices. What I’d like to focus on is the concept of a valuable economy- to help build things we really need, like health, education, early intervention. India has the lowest macro-economic stimulus so far. We should be building an economy that gives us the things we really need. There’s a serious issue on the supply side as well- like Dr. Pental said, productivity in agriculture, which can greatly help in access to food.


SK: How do we meet the supply side problem like Dr. Balakrishnan just mentioned?


DP: There’s no reason why we can’t produce more. We need to have a sustainable intensification, for which we require research and development. Are we really concerned about our children’s well-being? Then we should not leave any stone unturned to solve this problem.


SK: Dr. Neena, you talked about how layered this problem is. What more can be done by the people of India?


NB: We have to really empower the families, taking care of the first of the 1000 days of life, right from conception. Ensuring that the mother has access to the services. It’s not the citizens or the government, but we as a people who need to work together. We need to work on technology, infrastructure, and public spending. We have to follow a doubt-free approach to achieve these targets together.


The debate concluded with a consensus that there’s a need to underscore the severity of the problem of hunger and it’s not going away anytime soon. This can only be reversed by way of a collaborative, multi-dimensional and multi-stakeholder approach.


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