India is the world's largest producer of milk and pulses, and it is the second largest producer of rice, wheat, vegetables, fruits and fish. Despite being self-reliant in food production of major crops and running the world’s largest food safety programme, the hunger situation is still serious in India. But there are ways to fight it.
Even a person getting two times a meal a day may fall into the category of hunger if these consumed meals do not provide sufficient calories required to the person.
The 2021 Global Hunger Index (GHI), released last week, reflects the serious situation of hunger in India. India’s rank has slipped to 101 out of 116 countries considered for the GHI ranking this year; last year the country had ranked 94th in 2020.
Even India’s neighbours in South Asia – Sri Lanka (65 ranking), Bangladesh (76), Nepal (77) and Pakistan (92) – have performed better than India. GHI ranking of many economically underdeveloped African countries have better ranking than India. This severity of hunger situation in India warrants a serious introspection of our current strategy to tackle hunger.
The concept of hunger is complex. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines food deprivation, or undernourishment, as the consumption of too few calories to provide the minimum amount of dietary energy that each individual requires to live a healthy and productive life, given that person’s sex, age, stature, and physical activity level.
GHI is based on scores each country gets in a 100-point scale, where 0 is the best possible score (no hunger) and 100 is the worst possible score.
As per the global hunger index website, these standardised scores are based on four indicators:
1. Undernourishment: The share of the population that is undernourished (that is, whose caloric intake is insufficient);
2. Child wasting: the share of children under the age of five who are wasted (that is, who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition);
3. Child stunting: the share of children under the age of five who are stunted (that is, who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition); and
4. Child mortality: the mortality rate of children under the age of five (in part, a reflection of the fatal mix of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environments).
While GHI methodology is changed from time to time and broadly it has received acceptance in the past, but the methodology, particularly opinion poll-based assessment adopted to measure undernourishment in 2021 GHI for India has been questioned by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India.
While debate on this methodological issue of GHI 2021 for India is still going on, even considering India’s ranking in past years, hunger has been constantly serious in India although there have been improvements over the years.
As per FAO, India is the world’s second largest food producer. It is the world’s largest producer of milk and pulses, and it ranks as the second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, vegetables, fruit and fish.
More importantly after Independence there has been sustained growth of production of food grains outpacing the growth of population. India is currently self-reliant in food production of major crops.
India is also home to world’s largest food safety programme such as the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme started in 1975 for early childhood care and development benefiting children in the age group of 0-6 years, pregnant women and lactating mothers.
Further, POSHAN Abhiyaan was started in 2018 with the aim to reduce stunting, anemia, and low birthweight; Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS) started in 1997 with the aim to provide highly subsidised food grains to population living below poverty line (BPL); Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana to support poor during COVID time and mid-day meal scheme to provide food to children in schools.
This is not all. The enactment of the National Food Security Act, (NFSA) 2013 legally entitles upto 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population to receive subsidised food grains under TPDS. Non-governmental organisations have also been supporting in various ways to fight against hunger in India.
Currently our food safety programme follows a life-cycle approach covering pregnant mothers, lactating mothers, children starting from birth and needy adults which is a great step to fight hunger.
With this self-sufficiency in agricultural production and massive food safety programme in India, it is unexpected to see the current situation of serious hunger in India although there have been improvements.
Some of the major policy priorities to fight against hunger are discussed below and need to be adopted and implemented urgently.
First and foremost, promotion of food diversification with the aim to ensure consumption of minimum amount of dietary energy by all is important to tackle hunger.
Even a person getting two times a meal a day may fall into the category of hunger if these consumed meals do not provide sufficient calories required to the person. The meals of Indians are not diversified. Generally, the meals consumed by Indians are mainly cereal based (rice and wheat, etc.) and there is less consumption of protein-based food items such as pulses, milk and milk products and eggs.
Based on ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition ‘My Plate’ recommendations, the intake of cereals and millets should be not more than 45 per cent of the total energy. But the percentage of energy/ calories derived from different food groups showed that cereals and millets contributed 51 per cent of energy per day in urban areas and 65.2 per cent of energy in rural areas in India.
The common perception which is majorly driving the food safety programme in India is to ensure nobody should sleep in an empty stomach. The adequacy of calorie intake and diversification of food is not emphasised.
To bring food diversity, India should focus on agricultural diversity. The diversified agro-climatic zones and soil types in India provide ample opportunity to diversify agriculture.
Currently in the majority of agricultural land in India, cereal based crops like rice or wheat are cultivated. With the majority of the population directly dependent on agriculture, they consume more cereal based food items produced by them with lesser consumption of other protein or calorie-based foods.
Also our food safety programmes should focus on distribution of diversified food items and therefore along with cereals, other food items such as grams and pulses should be added. Milk and milk products and other high nutrition value may be considered to be added under ICDS and mid-day meal programmes.
The Indian government with a robust digital database should monitor and ensure all intended beneficiaries are covered under food safety programmes. Food inflation should be under control to enhance the affordability of people to buy different food items, helping to diversify types of food consumption.
Adoption of climate resilient agriculture, revival of the economy hit by COVID-19 and strong health system to cater health needs is important to sustain and accelerate the fight against hunger.
As per the 2021 GHI report, worsening conflict, weather extremes associated with global climate change, and the economic and health challenges associated with the COVID- 19 pandemic are all driving hunger. The unseasonal rains, floods and droughts in different parts of India and also observed recently in other countries are an indication of global climate change.
To sustain and enhance agricultural production it is important to adopt climate resilient agriculture sustainable in the long term.
India’s economy after being severely hit by the situation of COVID-19 in 2020-21 has now started to show signs of revival. As per quarterly estimates of gross value added (GVA) at basic prices for the first quarter (April-June, 2021), published by National Statistical Office of National Statistical Office (NSO) of Government of India, after 22 percent contraction of GVA in 2020-21, there has been 18.8 percent growth in 2021-22.
This growth should sustain and accelerate further to create more employment and enhance income with a focus on equity, thus creating better purchasing power to buy diversified food items.
India has experienced remarkable improvement in improving the status of child mortality. According to new mortality estimates released by UNICEF, the under-five mortality rate (deaths per 1,000 live births) in India declined to 34 in 2019 from 126 in 1990. With a strong health infrastructure and better access to health services, this should further improve. The efforts to control COVID-19 must continue.
Unlike many African and middle east countries, conflict is not severe and a major issue in India. But sporadic protests happening in some parts of India should not divert attention to fight hunger.
Hunger is one of the worst manifestations of human deprivation. That is why goal 2 of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) set by the United Nations, and adopted by India, aims to completely eradicate hunger in the world by 2030.
India is a very diverse country having a population of around 1.3 billion. With large scale poverty and social diversity in India, tackling hunger is a long complex process. But with sufficient and sustained agricultural production, proper distribution of food among all people and policies to provide access to diversified adequate food to all, India can achieve goal 2 of SDGs by eradicating hunger by 2030.
Biswaranjan Baraj is a senior development professional working on the issues of social and economic development, public policy and sustainability. He is Assistant Vice-President (Research) with Sambodhi Research & Communications Pvt Ltd. Views are personal.