While the Government has launched a scathing attack against the publishers of the Global Hunger Index for India’s poor ranking , experts argue that not only were steps taken by the Government to check rising levels of hunger in a pandemic year inadequate, it also failed to measure the scale of hunger to tailor its responses.
Following the launch of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 , which ranks India 101 out of 116 countries , and worse than Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the Government questioned the methodology used. It also enumerated various schemes it announced since the pandemic to counter hunger, including allocation of food grains at five kg per person per month free of cost for around 80 crore people from May to November, a similar scheme for migrant workers, cash transfer of ₹500 for 20 crore women account holders of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana from April to June 2020, and ₹1,000 per month from April to June 2020 to three crore aged widows and differently abled people.
But how was their coverage and were these schemes adequate?
Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), says we simply don’t have answers to these questions because India didn’t conduct a data collection exercise.
“I think what was promising was that nutrition was at a high point in terms of political agenda and visibility before the pandemic hit. In the minds of frontline workers and everyone else the idea that you need to continue to do things for nutrition was helped by the fact that pre-pandemic it was a strong agenda system-wide. There was a response from the Government too, be it food allocation from the Centre or more nuanced State government responses. But we don’t know whether that was adequate or inadequate. And the only way to know is to relentlessly measure to determine who is hungry, what is the nature and depth of food insecurity, what is it that people want, etc? What we need are population-wide rapid surveys and to make such data available in the public domain,” says Dr. Menon.
She cites the example of the U.S., where the Census Bureau rolled out a module specific to COVID-19 and used it to carry out six surveys in 18 months so that researchers could understand the extent of food insecurity, job losses and the Government could use that to tailor its safety net response.
When data were available, they were concealed, says economist Jayati Ghosh, who criticised the Government for its response to the GHI.
“The reaction of the Government to every piece of bad news can’t be that it is not true, it doesn’t exist. A responsible Government should acknowledge the problem and say we will do something about it. They suppressed the consumption data of their own National Sample Survey because they didn’t like the results. The attitude is always of denial. That is a terrible attitude because that means you are not going to do anything about it,” Ms. Ghosh says.
She also highlights several lacunae in the schemes announced last year.
“We should have given 10 kg of foodgrains and not five kg, and we should have been continuing to offer them today. We shouldn’t be demanding ration cards as a pre-requisite to receive these benefits because we know that at least 10 crore people are excluded from the public distribution system. We should immediately bring back functional anganwadis providing food, and open schools and provide mid-day meals. These are steps that should have been taken months ago. We should also look at the issue of livelihoods, by massively expanding the rural employment guarantee scheme. Already 90% of the funds are used up for the whole year. Give 150 days of employment to households and not just 100 days under the MGNREGA because these are exceptional times and also bring in an urban employment guarantee scheme,” demands Ms. Ghosh.
Dipa Sinha, Member of the Right to Food Campaign and Assistant Professor (Economics), Ambedkar University, questions the Government defence that there were only 3.9% malnourished children identified across various anganwadis.
“This can only mean that the Government has not been able to carry out growth monitoring and record the data.”
The National Family Health Survey-5 data released in December last year showed that several States recorded a significant fall in indicators that represent the nutritional status of children in 2019-2020 compared to 2015-2016 — 14 out of 17 States registered an increase in severe wasting, 11 out of 17 States saw increase in child stunting and 10 out of 17 saw an increase in child wasting.