Understanding Poverty in India through Global Hunger Index

GoodpalStarred Page By Goodpal, 23rd May 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
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Poverty in India can be best described through the Global Hunger Index (GHI). It basically explores lack of nutrition status among children and their mortality. India is the biggest center of poverty, undernourishment and malnutrition in the world. Its economic growth has failed to reach the poor.

India – A Nation of Extremes

India is truly a paradox on the planet. It is more like an open museum showcasing exhibits of extreme things not possible elsewhere. India is the largest functional democracy in the world. The current population of 1.25 billion is growing at the annual rate of 18 million (1.5%) and will beat China by 2028; it is expected to peak and then stabilize around 2050 at about 1.65 billion.

It is perhaps the most ancient land of practical spirituality in the world which goes much before the Christ – the Buddha is an evergreen example of that period, the Yoga philosophy is another contribution from that period. They attract people who are looking for really profound spirituality. One can also witness the most foolish acts done in the name of spirituality today – providing amusement to another set of globe trotters. The Space and Nuclear program has put India into the elite club of less than a dozen such countries around the world. The cultural and linguistic diversity is far too enormous than any other region in the world.

Extreme Wealth and Extreme Poverty

Is India Super-Poor or emerging Super-Power? This question correctly reflects the economic reality of the country and the answer is: Both – India is also a supreme example of economic inequalities.

The historic prosperity of the country can be best testified by the numerous invasions and arrival of outsiders during last 1000 years. The latest were the colonial British who plundered its wealth for 200 years to make Britain rich in as many ways as they could think of. Of course, the peace-loving nature of the inhabitants of the land, called Hindus today, and their deeply rooted spiritual philosophy of life was and is still a factor that allows outsiders considerable leeway in India. Perhaps the only other example of this similarity is the Tibetan society that fell prey to Chinese occupation half a century ago. Aversion to wars and aggression is considered a weakness in the world order created by the West through weapon power.

Its economy is already among the top 10 in the world and is still inching upwards; the IT sector has carved a unique place globally. In Asia, it is the second largest military power after China. There are some business houses that can easily compete with trans-national giants and individuals who are counted among the wealthiest in the world. Another evidence of its wealth comes from the dark side: a major chunk of black-money (money not shown in account books) deposited in the Swiss banks comes from India. Therefore, in terms of wealth, India is by all means a rich country.

Now, the other side of the coin.

India is home to the largest number of poor of the world. Yes, a Super-Poor country! Consequently, because of India’s huge population South Asia has become the world’s biggest center of poverty – and a sought after place for poverty researchers across the world. Like most other forms of diversity, there is considerable diversity in poverty also. This leads to very different estimates of the extent and nature of poverty, depending upon the yardstick.

According to the latest estimate (2013) of the Planning Commission of India, there are 269 million (or 22%) poor in India – down from 407 million in 2004-05. However, there is considerable skepticism about the latest poverty numbers and experts consider the official poverty line to be a “starvation line”. The more comprehensive Multidimensional Poverty Index 2013 report of UK based Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) says that there 650 million (53.7%) people are poor. The World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $1.25-a-day also put the count of the poor at around 400 million. If we put together all these estimates, the realistic number of the poor in India is in the range 400 – 600 million – about one-third to half of its population.

Clearly, there will never be agreement on the poverty numbers because of different yardsticks and different survey data. However, the numbers are really large. Compare these numbers with the European Union and US populations of 500 million and 310 million, respectively.

Talking from global perspective, the World Bank recently reported 1.2 billion people lived under its extreme poverty line of $1.25-a-day in 2010. Of these about 410 million lived in the sub-Saharan Africa and about 500 million in the South Asia. Therefore, roughly world’s one-third poor live in India alone – making India the biggest center of poverty in the world.

Given the nature of Indian society and 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 a suitable tool to analyze it.

Global Hunger Index (GHI)

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is a composite measure of malnutrition and hunger. Since 2006, 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, malnutrition, hunger and starvation. It scores and ranks countries based on three equally weighted indicators: (1) proportion of undernourished population, (2) proportion of underweight children under five, and (3) 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. The GHI puts countries in the 5
categories based on their index score:

Values below 5 low hunger
Values 5 – 10 moderate hunger
Values 10 – 20 serious hunger
Values 20 – 30 alarming hunger
Values above 30 extremely alarming hunger

As measured on GHI, since 1990 the extent of hunger has decreased worldwide, however, with different extents: by about 15% in the sub-Saharan Africa, by about 35% in North Africa, by 25% in South Asia, and most significantly by over 40% in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Thus, two worst global pockets of hunger are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Though GHI scores are similar, the reasons for such high levels of hunger are different in the two regions. In South Asia, it is due to high prevalence of underweight children under five resulting from the lower access to food and nutrition – pointing to highly unequal and inefficient distribution of food. In tropical Africa, the high GHI score results from the high child mortality rates and the high malnutrition – coming from bad governance, very poor economies, perennial conflicts and political instabilities as well as high prevalence of diseases like AIDS and poor sanitation.

Global Hunger has Reduced Since 1990

As the chart above shows, there is improvement in the hunger status all across the world since 1990. However, in absolute terms South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa still have the highest level of hunger: the major issue being underweight children and undernourished population. Clearly, food insecurity is very high among the poor in these two regions.

The Global Hunger Index 2012

The 7th report on Global Hunger Index was released on 11 October 2012. The basic theme of the report for the 2012 Global Hunger Index was: The Challenge of Hunger: Ensuring Sustainable Food Security under Land, Water, and Energy Stresses. It did find some progress on hunger reduction worldwide but the progress was too slow. India failed to show any significant improvement in its GHI score despite strong economic growth – again pointing to highly uneven distribution of prosperity. In the list of 79 countries, India was ranked 65th behind Pakistan at 57th and Sri Lanka at 37th position, and much behind China (2nd position). 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 – it is a known fact, anyway.

In the group of developing countries called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the other four outperform India in dealing with hunger poverty. Brazil and Russia have a “low” hunger index score (below 5) and China and South Africa are placed among states with “moderate” hunger level (GHI score 5 – 10). The improvement in India’s hunger index value has been only modest over the past two decades: 24.2 in 1990, 23.5 in 2011 and 22.9 in 2012. It still finds company among countries with an “alarming” hunger level (score 20 - 30).

High Prevalence of Child Under-Nutrition

The major reason of India’s bad performance on GHI is high prevalence of underweight children. Since 1990 the proportion of underweight children has only fallen from 60% to 43% and the under-five mortality rate from 12% to 7%. Acknowledging the level of high food insecurity, the Indian parliament has recently enacted the National Food Security Act covering two-third of the population, about 800 people. This should significantly bring down the levels of hunger and under-nutrition in the future.

Despite improvements since 1990, because of large population India is still home to over 40% of the world's underweight children (Pakistan 5 percent) and about a third stunted children (whose height is low for their age). This is despite the fact that India runs the world’s largest free-meal program (Mid-Day Meal Scheme) for school going children. Even the neighboring Nepal and Sri Lanka as well as Sudan and North Korea did better than India. In the neighboring region, only Bangladesh (ranked 68th) has comparable high levels of underweight children. No wonder, South Asia has the highest level of hunger comparable only with the sub-Saharan Africa.

The bad nutrition situation in India is a sign of many things wrong with the Indian society – high social inequality, high poverty, weak gender status of women's, low female literacy, poor healthcare awareness, poor sanitation, etc. Ultimately, all these factors are reflected in poor child nutrition. India ranks even poorer than several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Sudan, even though their per capita incomes are much lower.

The under-nutrition among children is a serious issue, particularly in infants before 2 years of age, because it has long term consequences as they grow up. Children under 2 who do not receive adequate nutrition have increased risks to experiencing lifelong damage, including poor physical and cognitive development, poor health, and even early death. However, the under nourishment or malnutrition after 2 is reversible.

Lack of Frequent Data Update

The GHI report also highlighted the fact that India’s score was based on partly outdated data, as there is lack of an up-to-date data on the nutrition status of its people. Even in 2013, the only available comprehensive data come from 2005 – 06. Countries such as Vietnam collect annual nutrition data for planning and surveillance purposes and collect deeper data at less frequent intervals. Even Bangladesh has a combination of surveillance on a frequent basis and deep surveys (every 3 years) more frequently.

It is expected that situation has improved since 2005-06 and a fresh survey should reflect the changes.

Hunger in Indian States

In 2008, the first of attempts to map state-wise hunger index of the country on the lines of the Global Hunger Index was made. It was called India State Hunger Index (ISHI). It used data from the NFHS survey of 2005-06 and the NSSO survey of 2004-05. The IGHI was calculated for 17 states, covering over 95% of population. The analysis showed severe hunger situation in India and considerable variation among different states.

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. This is a cause for concern because the benefits of economic growth are not trickling down to the poor. It also points out that economic growth alone can’t eliminate poverty and the government must take proactive steps through poverty reduction programs.

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.

No State 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. India did not have a single state in the ‘low hunger´ (GHI score below 5) or ’moderate hunger’ (score between 5 and 10) categories.

According to the analysis, child underweight accounted for the greatest contribution to the State Hunger Index for almost all states, followed by calorie deficiency and child mortality. In a few states such as Kerala and Tamil Nadu, calorie deficiency contributed almost as much as child underweight.

Summarizing the Key Findings

  • India’s poor performance on the GHI is primarily due to its relatively high levels of child malnutrition and undernourishment resulting from calorie deficient diets.

  • All Indian states have at least a “serious” level of hunger; there is not a single state with low or even moderate levels.

  • When compared to countries in the GHI, Indian states’ rankings would range from 34th (Punjab) to 82nd (Madhya Pradesh). This indicates substantial variability among states.

  • The four best performing states — Punjab, Kerala, Haryana and Assam — are also in the 'serious hunger' category. Punjab, the best-performing state in the country in terms of hunger, would rank below countries like Gabon, Honduras and Vietnam, placed low in the global index.

  • Twelve states, including Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and West Bengal, fall into the “alarming” category and one (Madhya Pradesh) is considered to have an “extremely alarming” level of hunger. It would rank between Ethiopia and Chad in the global list. Bihar and Jharkhand had index scores similar to Zimbabwe and Haiti.

  • The five worst performing states in hunger level terms are Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat. The supposedly prosperous Gujarat ranks below the poor state of Orissa.

  • ISHI scores are closely aligned with poverty, but there is little association with state-level economic growth; high levels of hunger are seen even in states that are performing well economically.

  • Improving child nutrition is of utmost urgency in most Indian states because of its large contribution to the ISHI scores.


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 promotes economic policies for inclusive and job-oriented growth besides providing education, healthcare and other social benefits to the poor.

Reading Further

If you liked this page, you may also be interested in reading:

Millennium Development Goals: How to View Poverty after 2015
Poverty is Multidimensional, So Should be Development
Looking at Poverty, Beyond Lack of Income
What is "Development" in the 21st Century World?

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Global Hunger Index, Hunger In India, India State Hunger Index, Poverty, Poverty In India, Poverty Line, Undernourishment In India

Meet the author

author avatar Goodpal
I am a keen practitioner of mindfulness meditation for past several years. I firmly believe in "goodness" of people, society and world. I regularly write on personal growth and social topics.

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author avatar Dishav@gmail.com
15th Jun 2011 (#)


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author avatar Tranquilpen
24th Aug 2011 (#)

Hello Goodpal, thank you for your excellent article. All I can say is that South Africa, where I live, is very similar. There is massive poverty and at the same time, top government officials and private industry management flourish. Daily there are reports of corruption and fraud among the top officials, yet it is as you say, nothing really gets done about it. I simply loathe the glamour magazines and TV shows that feature extravagance as the only way to live. Small wonder, that the crimes perpetrated against the Black and White members of our society, are done with extreme prejudice.

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author avatar Goodpal
24th Aug 2011 (#)

Thanks tranquilpen, for thoughtful commenting.

Inequality is the real global issue that exists every where. India or SA and most other countries are run by a few rich businessmen and corrupt politicians -- and the poor stay where they are. The political and economic system does not assimilate them or their voice; this is the real problem. Democracy is limited to voting system which is silly.

Inequality - whether of class, race, gender, cultural, financial, or political - is the virus that sustains poverty.

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