While the World Food Program received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 for not allowing hunger to be used as a weapon of war, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020 revealed a “lack of peace” because of hunger for around 14% of the population of world’s second-most populous country—India. India ranks 94 out of a total of 107 countries in the GHI of 2020, with a lower ranking indicating lower levels of hunger.
It is noteworthy that India’s South Asian neighbors, except for Afghanistan which ranks 99, are doing better. This includes Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan which are ranked 64, 73, 74 and 88, respectively. The GHI scores which assess the progress and setbacks in combating hunger and raises awareness and understanding of the struggle against hunger at national, regional and global levels. The GHI indicates that India’s progress has been less that encouraging. For instance, in the year 2000, the hunger situation was “alarming” with a score of 38.9 and improved in 2010 to 24.1. However, in 2020 the score worsened to 27.2 and continued to remain under the “serious” category of hunger.
The above figures translate into observations at odds with the claim and vision of India as a powerful country. Despite rapid economic, technological and military progress of the country, the above figures provide a pessimistic picture on India’s track to achieve its commitment to the Sustainable Development Goal-2 (SDG 2) of Zero Hunger by 2030. Further, it is noteworthy that the GHI 2020 projections do not account for the impacts of the coronavirus and the ensuing lockdowns; otherwise, it would only intensify the challenge of food and nutrition insecurity in India.
Some points that need serious introspection policymakers in New Delhi are: why has the trend worsened leading to the compromised health of majority of the children under the age of five? This is despite the presence of food security policies and the wide network of 1.37 million Anganwadi (child care centers) centers that provide supplementary nutrition and mid-day meals. Moreover, the Anganwadi provides other health and education services to children five years old and younger and to pregnant and lactating mothers. Added to this is the large-scale Public Distribution Services (PDS) in India wherein a poor household is provided thirty-five kilograms of wheat and rice at nominal prices.
The overall aim of these programs are to combat undernutrition (i.e., insufficient caloric intake). Such undernutrition is imminent through child wasting (children under the age of five years having low weight for their height); child stunting (children under the age of five years having low height for their age) and; mortality of children under the age of five years, which is a reflection of the fatal mix of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environments.
While certainly the governments at both Union, state and local levels in India need to be applauded for their policy and program efforts, a reality check on the deplorable situation of food and nutrition security calls for action. The shortcomings and challenges in the public services for food security need to be identified sans all prejudices. There is no denying that the challenge of undernourishment is rampant across the world, but in India it is mostly a result of poor implementation processes and lack of effective monitoring in tackling undernutrition.
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2020 has projected that by 2030, over 840 million people across the world would be undernourished and considering the massive impact of the coronavirus pandemic, this could increase even further. India’s situation remains fluid and unless determined steps are taken, achievement of SDG 2 by 2020 would be a distant dream. This could also have implications on India’s South Asia policy, as its economic cooperation proposals and “big brother role” may not go well with its neighbors anymore.
India’s GHI 2020 rank reveals an uncomfortable situation for the national and state governments despite having a range of food security programs in the country. It presents an urgent need to take note of the deteriorating situation and undertake rectification measures. There are several changes policymakers should consider. One of these is the strengthening of rural and smallholder agriculture by enabling the access to agricultural inputs and extension services. In addition, combining indigenous agricultural knowledge and practices with latest technologies and investment in novel solutions to promote urban agriculture are important. These changes will reduce India’s dependency on rural agriculture. Also, policymakers should encourage kitchen gardens to ensure households’ food and nutrition security and support a just framework of local food supply chains. Furthermore, governments should consider strictly monitoring and addressing hunger by regular statistical updates disaggregated by income, region, and gender. This will require the allocation of proportionate resources. Additionally, policymakers should promote social cohesion and gender equity in all policy planning and implementation for public health. Finally, India should ensure nutritious diets, especially for the low-income families, and it is important to design and develop more efficient and integrated systems of food production, processing, preservation and distribution.
These measures would not only ensure full physical and mental development of the millions of children in India but also strengthen the fundamentals of social cohesion, gender equity and economic prosperity. India’s goal of becoming a $5 trillion economy by 2025, then, would be easily attained.
Simi Mehta holds a PhD in American Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was a Fulbright Fellow at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Currently, she serves as the CEO and Editorial Director of Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected].