Has hunger increased in India?
India’s fall in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 rankings has been used by some to argue there has been a worsening of hunger in the country.
The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 rankings were released last week. India was placed at 101st rank among 116 nations covered in the report. India was ranked 94th out of 107 countries in the 2020 GHI rankings. India’s fall in the rankings has been used by some to argue there has been a worsening of hunger in the country.
Such arguments, to put it simply, are wrong. They are a result of reading GHI rankings without understanding how they are tabulated. This does not mean there are no nutrition-related concerns in India. Here is a brief summary of what GHI rankings tell us.
How are GHI rankings calculated?
Rankings are always a relative rather than absolute measure of any indicator. GHI rankings are based on Hunger Index Scores, which are a weighted normalised average of four indicators: PUN or prevalence of undernourishment (insufficient calorie intake), CM or child mortality (mortality rate of children under the age of five), CWA or child wasting (share of children under the age of five who have low weight for height) and CST or child stunting (share of children under five who have low height for age).
Each of the four components is given a standardized score based on thresholds set slightly above the highest country level values observed worldwide since 1988. The respective thresholds for PUN, CWA, CST and CM are 80, 30, 70 and 35, respectively.
The standardized scores take a value from zero to 100, where zero is the lowest level of a given measure of undernourishment and 100 the highest. The aggregate GHI score is a weighted average of the four indicators where PUN and CM have a weight of one-third and CWA and CST have a weight of one-sixth each.
The GHI report is unambiguous on non-comparability of scores overtime. “GHI scores are comparable with each year’s report, but not between different years’ reports...like the GHI scores and indicator values, the rankings from one year’s report cannot be compared to those from another,” the 2021 GHI report says.
Moreover, the report adds that there have been significant changes to the methodology of GHI, including addition of new countries. To be sure, the latest GHI report does allow for a comparison of 2021 GHI scores over three reference years: 2000, 2006 and 2012.
What has happened to India’s hunger score between 2000 and 2021?
It has come down, not gone up as is being inferred by many people from the latest rankings. India’s global hunger score was 38.5 in 2000, 37.4 in 2006, 28.8 in 2012, and 27.5 in 2021.
The GHI report gives a disaggregation of the four components, which yielded the aggregate global hunger score for 2000, 2006, 2012 and 2021. These statistics flag areas of concern in the fight against hunger in India. Two of the four indicators – the proportion of undernourished in the population and prevalence of wasting in children under five years of age – actually show a rise between the 2012 and 2021 reference periods for the global hunger score. On the other two indicators, there has been a secular improvement between 2000 and 2021.
Hunger and undernutrition vary drastically across India
Given India’s economic and social diversity, its performance in dealing with hunger and child undernutrition depend a lot on the performance of states. Some of the poorest states have the highest share in the population of children aged less than five years. Findings of the fifth round of the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS), conducted in 2019-20, show a difference in performance of states in dealing with child undernourishment. Out of the 22 states and Union Territories for which NFHS-5 data is available, the share of stunted, wasted and underweight children increased in 13, 12 and 16 states and UTs, respectively, between 2015-16 and 2019-20.
“The inclusion of child stunting and wasting in the rankings like the GHI means that we have to go much beyond the issue of simple adequacy of food in the search for solutions. Child outcomes matter a lot in the long-run for societies and they are as much a result of social factors, such as the condition of women and economic conditions of households,” said Purnima Menon, senior research fellow at International Food Policy Research Institute. “Of course, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling child undernutrition in India, and you have to focus on the big states, where both the population of children and prevalence of undernutrition among them is big.”