October 24, 2021

Rising Hunger in India: Statistics and Lies

Rimil Tara

THE 2021 Global Hunger Report released recently has once again highlighted the deplorable conditions of food insecurity and nutrition in India. The paradox is that India is simultaneously the country with the largest number of hungry people in the world and the country with the largest public stocks of foodgrains.

As per the latest Global Hunger Index, India has been ranked at 101 -- the lowest among all South-Asian countries except Afghanistan -- among 116 countries. India is ranked only above fifteen of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries of the world (Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Haiti, Liberia, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Central African Republic, Yemen, and Somalia). Out of 116 countries, there are 24 counties that have a higher GHI rank despite having lower per capita income than India. These include Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda, Solomon Islands and Togo, all countries with per capita income less than half of India. On the other hand, there is no country that has a higher per capita income than India but fares worse than India in terms of GHI.

Only a few months ago, in July, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report published by FAO along with a number of other UN organisations showed that the persons facing moderate to severe food insecurity increased from 43 crores in 2019 to 52 crores in 2020. In fact, FAO estimates have shown that India has the largest number of hungry and food insecure people in the world.

The dramatic rise in hunger over the last year was clearly a result of the unplanned COVID-19 lockdown that was imposed in March 2020 and the consequent economic crisis. Millions of workers lost their employment overnight and the scale of mass migration caused by it was reminiscent of the migration caused by the partition of India.

India's economy was facing an economic slowdown even before the pandemic hit the country. Misadventures such as demonetisation and GST, and overall mismanagement of the economy, had caused severe hardships for working people in the country. Periodic Labour Force Surveys (PLFS) even before the pandemic showed unprecedented levels of unemployment.

Unfortunately, instead of responding to the crisis of livelihoods that its reckless mismanagement of the economy has created, the BJP government worked overtime to cover up and deny the problem. It blocked the release of surveys that showed worsening conditions of unemployment and deprivation. The government first tried to block the release of the 2017-18 PLFS. This was however released after the national elections because the report was made public by a media leak. Data from the 2017-18 consumption survey, which are crucial for the estimation of poverty and hunger, were never released. A part of the report based on this survey, which became available because of a media leak, showed that there was a large increase in poverty between 2011-12 and 2017-18. In other words, instead of working to reverse the economic slowdown, the modus operandi of the BJP government has been to cover it up and deny its existence.

In the same sequence, the response of the government to India's poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) has been to reject the data and make false claims. On October 15, the ministry of women and child development (MoWCD) issued a press statement in which it argued that India's rank in GHI slipped because of the prevalence of undernourishment (PoU), one of the four indicators on which GHI is based, has an "unscientific" methodology and is "found to be devoid of ground reality and facts and suffers from serious methodological issues".

This press note is nothing but a bundle of lies and false claims.

Prevalence of undernourishment (PoU), developed and estimated by FAO, provides an estimate of the proportion of people whose regular food intake is less than the minimum required for a healthy life. It is based on calorie intake estimated using official data and not, as incorrectly stated in the press note, on an "opinion poll". Prevalence of undernourishment is the globally accepted indicator of hunger. It was the indicator used to track progress on MDG Target 1C and is currently accepted as one of the indicators for tracking global progress on SDG Target 2.1.

Further, the press statement goes on to reject PoU as a valid measure of the prevalence of hunger on the grounds that it shows no other South-Asian country was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is simply false. Data on PoU available from the FAO website clearly shows that hunger increased in all South Asian countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It shows that the increase was highest in India and lowest in Nepal and Bangladesh. The prevalence of hunger increased between 2017-19 and 2018-20 by 2.2 percentage points in India while the increase was 0.5 percentage points in Nepal, 0.7 percentage points in Pakistan and 0.8 percentage points in Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh,  the three-year average shows a decline of 1.1 percentage points because the rise in hunger levels during the pandemic was slower than the fall in hunger levels in recent years.

Instead of rejecting the data simply because it shows India's performance has been poorer than most other South Asian countries, the real question to ask is, why is it that India has seen such a high increase in hunger and food insecurity? Why are more people hungry in India than even in scores of other countries that are poorer than us? And what could be done to end hunger in India? It is clear that the government does not want anyone to ask these questions.

Battered by three decades of neoliberalism, India's social security system was highly inadequate to deal with the crisis created by the COVID-19 lockdown. The targeted public distribution system under NFSA excludes a large section of the population. Following the National Food Security Act (NFSA), public distribution covers 67 per cent of the population as per the last (2011) census. However, since the last census is a decade old, there is a substantial gap -- of about 12 crore persons -- in the coverage of the public distribution system because the increase in population has not been accounted for.

After the lockdown was announced in March 2020, the government promised to double the entitlement of existing NFSA beneficiaries for the period of the pandemic. However, the distribution under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKAY) was not streamlined and many NFSA beneficiaries did not receive the additional grain. This is clear from the fact that overall distribution under PMGKAY remained considerably lower than the distribution under NFSA. In addition, the government did not extend the benefit of the public distribution system to persons who did not have NFSA ration cards but were pushed into food insecurity because of the COVID-19 lockdown. For example, migrant workers who lost their livelihoods were left stranded without access to even the PDS system.

Throughout the pandemic, the central government has been promising a roll-out of ‘one nation-one ration’ scheme to enable people to access ration shops wherever they are. However, implementation of the scheme has been marred by the use of complicated and technology-dependent solutions such as linkages with Aadhaar, bank accounts and PoS machines. All that the government needed to do was to universalise access to the public distribution system -- allow anyone to buy subsidised grain from ration shops irrespective of whether they had a ration card or not. This was eminently feasible given that the government was sitting on over 100 million tonnes of grain and required no technological solutions. However, instead of opening the gates of its granaries to anyone who was in need of food, the government accumulated additional 32 million tonnes of grain between March 2020 and July 2021.

Functioning of the Mid-day Meal and the Integrated Child Development Schemes was disrupted because of the closure of schools and anganwadis during the pandemic even in remote villages where no cases of COVID-19 were recorded through most of 2020. There was also no effective mechanism introduced by the government to ensure that nutrition support reached children and pregnant/lactating women during this period. There was no mechanism to ensure that the grain that was being reported to have been sent for distribution was actually reaching the beneficiaries during the lockdown. Bogus data have been reported on the dashboards of the ministry to suggest that a huge amount of grain has been distributed while the reality shown in ground-level assessments is very different. Also, anganwadi workers were given additional COVID-related duties, which forced them to forgo regular care services in anganwadis.

The press note of the MoWCD lists a series of welfare schemes that India has, and argues that assessment of hunger does not take their benefits into account. Food consumption data that are used for estimation of hunger take into account all food consumption irrespective of whether it is home produced, purchased from the market, or obtained as benefits of government schemes. The fact that a large population of India is still undernourished points to the inadequacy of these schemes. An important reason for conducting regular surveys and assessments is to verify if the benefits of government interventions are actually reaching people and if they are having the desired outcomes. Merely having social security schemes does not guarantee that deprivations cease to exist. Prevalence of poverty, hunger and unemployment need to be independently assessed so that these can be used to question and guide policies. Under the BJP government, there has been a sinister attempt to stop conducting surveys and independent evaluations to assess the ground reality and shift to reporting administrative data from schemes as proof that the deprivations were being alleviated. It is assumed that the benefits of these schemes are reaching people and are adequate to end deprivation.

The statistics on hunger and food insecurity only confirm the economic crisis people of the country are confronted with. No amount of lies and bluffs can fool people who are living through these experiences.