Why I can’t digest the hunger index
India would have been ranked in the global top 10 if they’d polled people right after a three-course meal
A lot of people have expressed shock at India’s poor rank in the Global Hunger Index (GHI). Many of them, in case you haven’t noticed, are people who gorge on four meals a day. These same people, after years of overeating, compensate for their gluttony by going on a diet. Their entire knowledge of hunger is derived either from dieting-related yearning for pizza, or the ritualistic fasting they undertake periodically for image management purposes. Their self-awareness is so low it never occurs to them that even a single calorie consumed in excess of bodily need is food snatched away from the table of the authentically hungry people of India, assuming there are any. And yet, these shameless individuals have no compunction about blaming the government for India’s appalling GHI score.
Therefore, first of all, I want to take this opportunity to condemn these people. Secondly, I wish to draw your attention to a piece of good news that most commentators have ignored in their obsession with showing India in a negative light: India is ranked higher than a whopping 15 countries. These include global superpowers such as Papua New Guinea, Chad, Burundi, Haiti, Madagascar, and Somalia. To borrow a favourite phrase of our legal luminaries, the heavens won’t fall if India stays at 101st rank for some time. Sure, it means we are not World No. 1 in combatting hunger. But it also means we aren’t the worst. Let’s give credit to the government where it’s due — we could have been Somalia but aren’t.
Thirdly, regardless of the fact that India’s rank is not as bad as it’s made out to be, or as bad as it could have been (116th), it’s important to note that GHI’s methodology is nonsense. As already pointed out by the government, they have used an opinion poll to find out how many people in India are hungry. I personally have no objection to that. But then, GHI rigged the poll in such a way that most people would end up saying they were hungry or that they were never going to eat again.
For instance, GHI contacted a friend of mine for its telephonic survey at 1.30 pm, just as he was about to sit down for lunch. When they asked him if he was hungry, he replied, “Absolutely!” Moments after the call, he had a three-course meal of sambar rice, rasam rice, and curd rice with murungakkai poriyal and vendakkai avial topped off with chocolate brownies. Had he (and thousands like him) been contacted just 40 minutes later, India would have been ranked in the top 10.
Next, many Indians remain hungry as a lifestyle choice. As was correctly pointed out by a former chief minister of Gujarat, Indian girls are “more beauty-conscious than health-conscious”. They don’t eat out of fear of getting fat. As proved by several scientific studies over the years, the biggest side-effect of not eating is hunger. Is it fair to blame the government if Indians choose to remain hungry for cosmetic reasons?
Then there are the hunger artists. India hosts the world’s largest number of hunger artists, numbering 560.72 million according to the 2011 Census. These are the people who read Franz Kafka’s iconic short story ‘A Hunger Artist’ when they were 16 and decided to become hunger artists themselves. They sit in a cage and fast for days and days in the hope that people will come and admire them. But the tragedy is that, let alone normal people, even hunger experts, such as those that run the GHI, ignore them, just to malign India’s image.
One level below the professional hunger artist is the amateur — people who remain hungry because they cannot find food that they like. Some of you may have (had) girlfriends like that. You plan a dinner date and take them to a nice restaurant, only to exit the restaurant without ordering anything. This happens because she invariably initiates a tedious interrogation of the waiter, asking the poor fellow if he can organise Dish X without the ingredients Y and Z, while adding spice A and vegetable B, but without allowing element C in the mix to become too hard or too soft, while ensuring that the fauna being served is mildly undercooked but not so undercooked as to sit up on the plate, look around, jump off the table, and flee into the wilderness. Her culinary demands are so arduous that the waiter either bursts into tears or wordlessly escorts you to the door.
This happens three-four times in the course of the evening. While your girlfriend achieves her goal of a food-less dinner date, you get progressively hungrier until, out of sheer exasperation, you break off the relationship and head for the bar. If you get a call from the GHI pollster at this precise moment, what do you think you’ll say? Now imagine an entire opinion poll conducted with people in such situations. Is it any wonder we got ranked 101st?
G. Sampath, author of this satire, in Social Affairs Editor, The Hindu.