A day after the 2021 Global Hunger Index (GHI) placed India 101 out of 116 countries, the Centre alleged that the publishers of the report – Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide and German non-profit Welthungerhilfe – employed "unscientific methodology" to determine rankings.
Expressing shock, in an official statement released on 15 October, the Ministry of Women and Child Development claimed that the report had lowered India's rank on the basis of FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimate on proportion of undernourished population.
The estimate was, in turn, based on an opinion poll conducted telephonically, which the government claimed was "devoid of ground reality and facts."
So, has India been unfairly assessed? Is the government's questioning of the report befitting? Read on for what the experts say.
India's Undernourishment Report Not Based on 'Telephonic Opinion Poll' as Govt Claims
The 2021 GHI ranked India at 101 on the basis of four indicators – undernourishment, wasting, stunting, and under-five mortality.
While the report indicated that India has progressed in undernutrition, child stunting, and child mortality, it ranked the worst in 'child wasting' or low weight-for-height, which is an indication of undernourishment.
As per the report, the country's undernourishment prevalence rose from 14 percent in 2017-2019 to 15.3 percent between 2018 and 2020.
Challenging that very data about undernourishment, one of the primary allegations made by the government is that the agencies "based their assessment on the results of a four-question opinion poll, which was conducted telephonically by Gallup."
"The scientific measurement of undernourishment would require measurement of weight and height, whereas the methodology involved here is based on Gallup poll based on pure telephonic estimate of the population," the statement read, suggesting that the data gathered was unreliable and insufficient.
However, as per the GHI's declaration about which data were used to calculate the 2021 GHI score for India, "Undernourishment values are from the 2021 edition of the FAO Food Security Indicators (published 12 July 2021). FAO's Gallup telephone-based opinion indicator – the Food Insecurity Experience Scale – is NOT used in the GHI."
"The GHI uses the prevalence of undernourishment indicator, which is assessed by FAO using Food Balance Sheet data from each country. It measures the proportion of the population with inadequate access to calories and is based on data regarding the food supply in the country," the report says.
Certainly, there are criticisms around FAO methodology, but experts point out that all the criticism has been around underestimation, not the other way round.
'FAO Methodology Can Be Criticised for Underestimating, Not Overestimating'
"You could say that there are certain issues with the methodology, but they're not the ones that the government is raising," says Dr Dipa Sinha, Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Studies at Delhi's Ambedkar University.
"Globally, there are criticisms about FAO's methodology but it has to do with undercounting. Many experts feel that the calorie cutoff that it uses to measure hunger, is low. That is the criticism, it has never been about overestimation."Dr Dipa Sinha, Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Studies at Delhi's Ambedkar University
Elaborating more on the data that FAO refers to, she says, "The analysis is not based on one data point. What FAO does is that they take various data related to food production as well as consumption, etc. It's kind of an index. And, all the data that FAO uses are from official sources. So, what you could have a problem with is what FAO defines as undernourishment. And it has been the same for many years and the Government of India hasn't raised any issue about it before."
"The proportion of undernourished population – one of the indicators in the index which is from FAO – has been determined using the same methodology for many years," Dr Sinha says.
Pandemic Likely To Have Worsened Hunger Problem
The GHI report added a caveat that "any developments in 2021 are not yet reflected in the latest prevalence of undernourishment data" since "the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely only be reflected in the GHI data in the coming years."
But given the findings of other reports on unemployment, poverty, and hunger, experts expect the conditions to have only worsened in the pandemic months, not improved.
For example, earlier in June 2021, the World Economic Forum had noted that "COVID-19 has proven to be not only a health crisis, but also a livelihood crisis – quickly turning into a hunger and malnutrition catastrophe" in India.
"The pandemic is becoming a nutrition crisis, due to overburdened healthcare systems, disrupted food patterns and income loss, along with the disruption of programmes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme and the mid-day meal," the report had said.
Another report by Oxfam had also said, "Among countries and regions where the food crisis has worsened because of the pandemic, some are particularly concerning: Yemen, the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria. Hunger has also intensified in emerging hunger hotspots like Brazil, India and South Africa, which also saw some of the sharpest rises in COVID-19 infections."
Since the release of the GHI 2021 report, Oxfam India has also said that India's rank "unfortunately reflects the reality of the country where hunger accentuated since the COVID-19 pandemic".
Sompal Shastri, former agriculture minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, says, "If you look at some of the findings in the earlier NSSO reports, those cannot be questioned. Some of those reports say that incomes have come down, costs have risen, landholding have become smaller, and so on. These are the results of government surveys. And they broadly indicate that the stress in the rural regions has increased. That is an indirect index of the condition in the country."
Dr Sinha also points out that the NFHS V survey itself has warned that wasting in children worsened in the last half-a-decade in a majority of the surveyed states and Union Territories.
"We have half the results of NFHS V... it was released in the end of last year that shows a slowdown in improvement and worsening of undernourishment in some states," she adds.
Amitabh Behar, the CEO of Oxfam India argues along the same lines. "This trend of undernutrition in India is unfortunately not new, it is actually based on the government’s own National Family Health Survey (NHFS) data... This loss of nutrition should be of concern because it has intergenerational effects," he says.
According to the survey report, 13 states and Union Territories of the 22 surveyed showed a surge in the percentage of stunted children under five years of age in comparison to NFHS IV (2015-16).
"At the centre of India’s food security and nutrition crisis is low priority and poor policy that does not look at the long-term consequences of where we are headed."Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India
"The primary takeaway from the GHI report", Dr Sinha says, "is that year after year India has been in the bottom end."
Despite "increased" allocations to POSHAN (Prime Minister's Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nourishment) scheme, a statement by Oxfam India says that the scheme has languished due to poor funding resulting from clever clubbing with other schemes within the health budget and even worse implementation.
Only 0.57% of the current budget has been allocated toward funding the actual POSHAN scheme and the amount for child nutrition dropped by a whopping 18.5% compared to 2020-21.