Understanding Poverty in India through the Hunger Index
Poverty in India can be best described through the Global Hunger Index (GHI). It uncovers the fact that there is wide spectrum of poverty and hence, hunger across India. Economic growth does not necessarily reduce poverty. India scores poorly on this index compared to its economic status because the poor are excluded from the mainstream economy and development..
- One-third World's Poor Live in India
- Global Hunger Index (GHI)
- Status of Global Hunger
- Hunger in India
- Hunger in Indian States
One-third World's Poor Live in India
India is home to the largest number of poor in the world. The latest estimate suggests that over 400 million people live below the official poverty line. Compare this number with the entire population of the South American continent estimated to be about 380 million or the US population of 310 million. Given the nature of rural Indian economy all shades of poverty can be found in India – from moderate under-nutrition to extreme starvation. Therefore, it is more realistic to measure Indian poverty through the lens of under-nutrition and hunger. Clearly the Global Hunger Index (GHI) is the ideal tool to analyze it.
Global Hunger Index (GHI)
The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is a multidimensional measure of malnutrition and hunger. It is published every year by The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in association with an Irish group, Concern Worldwide and a German group, Welthungerhilfe. It provides a better picture of poverty for countries where people are struggling with food insecurity, hunger and starvation. It scores countries based on three equally weighted indicators: proportion of undernourished population, proportion of underweight children under five, and the mortality rate of children under the age of five.
The index number varies between 0 and 100. The higher the score, the worst the food/nourishment related poverty of the country. Values below 5 reflect “low hunger”, 5 – 10 indicate “moderate hunger”, 10 – 20 implies “serious hunger”, scores in the range 20 – 30 show “alarming hunger” and values over 30 mean “extremely alarming hunger” situation.
Status of Global Hunger
The GHI published in 2010 indicates that in last 20 years, the extent of hunger has decreased worldwide. Compared with 1990 data, the 2010 GHI fell by 14% in the sub-Saharan Africa, by about 33% in North Africa, by 25% in South Asia, and most significantly by over 40% in Southeast Asia and Latin America.
On the GHI scale sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (mainly India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) have the worst score, 22.9 and 21.7 respectively – reflecting “alarming hunger”. Though the scores are similar, reasons of food insecurities are different. In South Asia, it is due to high prevalence of underweight children under five resulting from the lower nutrition and educational status of women. In sub-Saharan Africa, the high GHI score comes from the high child mortality rates and the high malnutrition due of bad governance, conflicts, political instability and high HIV/AID rates.
Hunger in India
According to the 2010 GHI report, India is among 29 countries with the highest levels of hunger, stunted children, and poorly fed women. Despite the strong economy, it was placed at position 67 among 84 countries ranked on GHI; it faired worst than Sri Lanka (at 39) and Pakistan (at 52) and way behind China. Even Sudan, Zimbabwe and North Korea do better than India on this index! The hunger level in India (along with Pakistan and Bangladesh) is higher than per capita gross national income (GNI), suggesting very high level of inequality in income distribution. This fact also confirms that the so-called economic reforms in India are meant only for those who are already better off and live in cities.
The report pointed out that India scores badly on this index due to high levels of child underweight resulting from the low nutritional level and social status of women in the country. Because of large population, India is home to 42 percent of the world's underweight children (Pakistan 5 percent) and 31 percent of stunted children (whose height is low for their age). This is despite the fact that India runs the world’s largest free-meal program for school going children.
However, there is an improvement compared with the 1990 data: the prevalence of underweight children dropped from 60 percent to 44 percent and the under-five mortality rate fell from 12 percent to 7 percent. The food insecurity and hence, under-five undernourishment is so rampant across the country that India finds company with Bangladesh and Yemen. Acknowledging it the Indian government is planning to bring in the national Food Security Act soon.
The report also highlighted the importance of early childhood under-nutrition among children younger than the age of two. Children who do not receive adequate nutrition during this period have increased risks to experiencing lifelong damage, including poor physical and cognitive development, poor health, and even early death. However, malnutrition after the age of two is largely reversible.
Hunger in Indian States
In 2008, the India State Hunger Index (ISHI) was published highlighting severe hunger situation in India. It is constructed similar to GHI and was calculated for 17 states, covering over 95% of population. None of the states had ISHI lower than 10: the ISHI score ranged from 13.6 (“serious”) for Punjab to 30.9 (“extremely alarming”) for Madhya Pradesh, reflecting substantial variability. Twelve states had scores in the range, 20 – 30, implying an “alarming” hunger level.
In fact, when compared with GHI rankings of different countries Indian states covered a wide range of hunger: from rather well-off Punjab (at rank 34) to Madhya Pradesh (at 82) where more people suffer from hunger than in Ethiopia or Sudan and where 60 percent children are undernourished. The other worst performing states – Bihar and Jharkhand – had index scores similar to Zimbabwe and Haiti.
The ISHI scores align closely with poverty level in states, but show little correlation with state’s economic growth; high hunger level is seen even in states doing well economically. Therefore, economic growth is not necessarily associated with poverty reduction.
The ISHI report clearly highlights that in India more efforts are needed to improve child nutrition, particularly in states like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh and improve strategies to facilitate inclusive economic growth.
It is clear that poverty is not homogeneously spread in India; some major populous states such as Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh need serious attention as far as food sufficiency and child nutrition is concerned. Moreover, the fact that economic growth does not necessarily correlate with reduced poverty is a cause for concern because the benefits are not trickling down to the poor. Therefore, it is important that the government provides education, healthcare and other social benefits to the poor so that they become capable and join the mainstream economy.
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