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What India’s growth story conceals

The country has 42 per cent of the world’s underweight children, at a time when 67,000 tonnes of foodgrain were damaged in government godowns in Punjab and Haryana. Abhijit Patnaik writes.

delhi Updated: Oct 15, 2010 11:42 IST
Abhijit Patnaik

India’s performance at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 has been its best so far – second on the medals list.
However, another kind of ‘competition’ ranked 84 countries in accordance with achievements in a different field this week. India was a lowly 67th.

The field was hunger, measured by combining the proportion of people undernourished, the proportion of underweight children and the child mortality rate.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2010 – a joint report released this week by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Welthungerhilfe, a German NGO, and Concern Worldwide, an Irish Charity – ranks India below countries such as Rwanda and Sudan, putting it firmly in the “alarming levels of hunger” range.

“We have seen good progress in overall growth, the Sensex etc, but we need to look at what is happening to the poorest of the poor,” says Ashok Gulati, director (Asia), IFPRI.

For a country that spends billions of dollars every year on programmes to improve the health and nutrition children, the report is damning. The report, however, does not account for the huge rise in rural incomes as a result of programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) since the data are not available. The health sector budget’s outlay has more than doubled since 2005-06 to Rs 24,154 crore currently. The central government has introduced programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), aimed at improving the nutritional and health status of children of six years and below, and the Janani Suraksha Yojana (translated it means protection of the mother), providing cash incentives to encourage women to deliver babies at government health centres, thereby reducing maternal and infant mortality.

However, as reported in the HT on October 6, Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath has sent letters to several states warning them about the poor implementation of schemes to provide supplementary nutrition.

IFPRI Research Fellow Purnima Menon says: “Child under-nutrition is a major contributor to the GHI, especially for Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It is important to focus on the initial 1,000-day period (from the conception of the child till they are two years old) since good nutrition in this period is crucial.” The ICDS has been blunted by the emphasis on providing nutrition supplements to slightly older children.

Agricultural stagnation

In a country where more than 50 per cent of the workforce is dependent on agriculture, greater investment and growth in that sector can decrease levels of hunger. “The World Development Report in 2008 stated that 1 per cent growth in agriculture is 2-3 times more effective in reducing poverty than similar growth in the non-agricultural sector. However, Indian growth has been brought on by the services sector, which includes IT and telecom,” says Gulati.

Agricultural growth in India was an abysmal 2.2 per cent on average during 2007-09, against a target of 4 per cent. It was stunted by a combination of policies – from food procurement and distribution through the public distribution system to subsidies, which have prevented any real investment in agriculture for decades.

Gender inequality and malnutrition are highly correlated. In any society, empowered women have better nutritional status and provide high-quality care for their children. It is no surprise that India ranks so poorly on the GHI, given that the Global Gender Gap Report 2010 ranked India 112th out of 134 nations worldwide for gender equality.

China and Vietnam, like India, have shown high GDP growth rates in the last decade, but have also succeeded in reducing hunger and poverty. China, for example, is ranked ninth on the GHI. Vietnam, though 39th, has showed the largest decrease on the GHI score from 1990 to 2009 (a lower GHI signifies reduction in malnutrition).

This gives fuel to the argument that development in India is not pro-poor as inequalities are rising. The IMF might forecast Indian’s GDP growth rate to cross 9 per cent, but we seem certain to miss one of the key Millennium Development Goals: halving malnutrition by 2015. The India that is not shining

(Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate and report the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/trackinghunger)