A timely reality check on public policies in the developing world, the Global Hunger Index 2010, (GHI) released by the International Food Policy Research Institute, reveals the disturbing fact that the number of hungry people in the world hovers around the one-billion mark. Although this year's estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organisation place the figure at 925 million, barely a year ago, at the height of the recession, “the number of undernourished people crossed one billion.” The recent dip notwithstanding, the messages from the GHI are quite discomforting. For one, there is a striking divide between the haves and the have-nots of the world. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are among the 29 that face either “extremely alarming” or “alarming” levels of hunger. Secondly, glittering economic growth rates do not mean a hunger-free nation; India, with its large economy and robust growth, is ranked among countries that face an “alarming” situation. Thirdly, nothing works like meaningful state-led intervention policies that directly address hunger; Brazil has improved its performance by more than 50 per cent between 1990 and 2010, thanks to effective state intervention.
The GHI rightly identifies the high prevalence of “child under-nutrition as a major contribution to persistent hunger”. Although past policies targeted children under the age of five, it is pointed out that the “window of opportunity” to improve nutrition is much shorter — the period spanning (-)9 months to (+)24 months (from conception to the second birthday). This observation should lead to a reordering of public policies to ensure that this crucial period is not missed out. At a wider level, malnutrition is a consequence of multiple deprivations that call for action on related issues as well. For instance, a study earlier this year by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative showed that while 38.9 per cent of the poor in India were undernourished, they encountered severe deprivations in respect of other critical and related indicators as well: cooking fuel (52.2 per cent), drinking water (12 per cent) and sanitation (49.3 per cent). Malnutrition cannot be tackled effectively as a stand-alone issue and what is needed is a comprehensive policy that addresses multiple deprivations. In addition, there is evidence from Brazil that well-conceived conditional cash transfer schemes help in reducing hunger. India must fine-tune its social sector programmes, including the conditional cash transfer schemes, to wage a successful battle against hunger.