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Monday, October 18 2021


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Big Story

A big uproar over India’s hunger data

The TLDR: The Global Hunger Index published its 2020 data over the weekend—and India dropped by seven spots to #101 out of 116 countries. The government immediately attacked its “unscientific” methodology. Who’s got it right and how hungry are Indians?

 

Tell me about this index…

The Global Hunger Index: is pulled together by two non-profit organizations: Ireland-based Concern Worldwide and the German Welthungerhilfe. The index was first published in 2006 as a way “to comprehensively measure and track hunger at global, regional, and national levels.” And it ranks the countries in relation to one another—putting them in categories that range from ‘low’ to ‘alarming’. 

 

Their methodology: The index looks at four indicators to arrive at its ranking:

 

  • Undernourishment is the share of the population whose caloric intake is insufficient.
  • Child wasting accounts for children under the age of five who have low weight for their height—which indicates acute undernutrition.
  • Child stunting looks at the share of children under five who have low height for their age.
  • Child mortality accounts for deaths of children under five due to a lethal mix of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environments.

 

Their data: is drawn from a variety of United Nations agencies and other multilateral institutions such as the World Bank etc. 

 

Ok, what’s the controversy?

What the report said: India has dropped from #94 in the 2020 report to #101 this year—and is behind all its neighbours, including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. At the very top: 18 countries—such as China, Brazil and Kuwait. India falls into the ‘serious’ category—which is a big improvement from 2000 when we were labeled ‘alarming’.

 

Why we dropped: India fell seven places because the percentage of wasting —underweight children below the age of five—increased to 17.3% from 15.1% in 2012. We have the highest child wasting rate of all countries covered in the GHI. And the percentage of undernourished Indians rose from 14% in 2017-2019 to 15.3% in 2018-2020.

 

The government’s critique: The statement put out by the Ministry of Women and Child Development argued:

 

  • The undernourishment numbers are wrong because the index relied on data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation—which in turn based its assessment on a ‘four question’ telephone poll.
  • The results disregard the huge effort made to feed people during the pandemic—since the poll never asked if the respondent received any food support from the government.
  • The index should have relied on height and weight to assess undernourishment.
  • And how did Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka improve their undernourishment numbers—when everyone knows they were all badly hit by the pandemic?

 

Most importantly: The real-time data from the government’s POSHAN portal shows that only 3.9% of the children served by government programs are undernourished. 

 

Quote to note: The government claims there has been a “selective approach adopted by the publishing agencies to deliberately lower India’s rank on the GHI 2021.”

 

So does the government have a point?

We are not experts in crunching public policy data, but here are three bits of counter-evidence you may want to weigh for yourself:

 

GHI’s response: Here is what the index’s researchers told The Hindu:

 

  • The index did not rely on FAO’s survey but its Food Balance Sheet—which looks at specific food items in each country, its sources of supply and its consumption.
  • Height and weight were taken into account by other indicators like wasting and stunting. The undernourishment indicator, however, measures the proportion of the population with inadequate access to calories—and is based on data on food supply in the country.
  • And no, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka did not improve their numbers—but show an increase in the prevalence of undernourishment.

 

About that POSHAN scheme: The government launched POSHAN Abhiyaan in 2017 to improve nutrition among children, pregnant women and lactating mothers. Since then, the scheme has been clubbed with several other such schemes. But they have been poorly funded and implemented, according to Down To Earth:

 

  • Only 0.57% of the current budget has been allocated toward funding them—and the amount for child nutrition dropped by 18.5% compared to 2020-21. 
  • A 2020 government audit showed that only Rs 15.7 billion (1,570 crore) had been spent out of the approximately Rs 43 billion (4,300 crore) released under POSHAN Abhiyaan. 
  • The software developed for real-time tracking—cited by the government—has been a flop, and the portal has been defunct since September 2020. And only 551,270 of the 1,012,374 anganwadi centres are equipped with the software.

 

A 2020 survey: Last December, the government released the first phase results of the National Family Health Survey—with data from 17 states and five Union Territories. It revealed that numbers for child stunting, wasting and mortality are either higher or stagnant. Or to put it more simply: “children born between 2014 and 2019 (that is, 0 to 5 years of age) are more malnourished than the previous generation.” 

 

Worrying point to note: This data was collected in the second half of 2019—which does not account for the disastrous effects of the pandemic. And it does not include data from some of the biggest states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Jharkhand. Experts expect the second phase data on child malnutrition to be even worse.

 

The bottomline: The government has every right to challenge the numbers put out by any organisation. But how can it argue with its own ministry’s assessment?

 

Reading list

You can check out the Global Hunger Index’s India numbers here, and explanation of its methodology here. The Hindu has GHI’s response to the government’s criticism—and the government’s pushback. Indian Express offers an explainer on the 2020 NFHS data. Down To Earth has a good read on why we are failing to feed our children. The Print has two good reads: the role of caste in malnutrition, and the need for animal-sourced food.

 

 
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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • ICYMI Adele released the first song from her highly anticipated album ‘30’

 

Smart & Curious

  • The bizarre fashionista obsession with the ‘nap dress’
  • How social media has reshaped our relationship with death and mourning
  • The only Goan food store in Karachi
  • Why do we easily believe ‘outlandish’ theories?
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