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How a faulty metric to calculate global hunger is creating a flawed narrative against India

The poor ranking of India in the Global Hunger Index published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has created quite an uproar with the opposition claiming it to be a malefic consequence of the present government policies.

Some in the mainstream media made false claims that India slipped in ranking by 45 positions—from a 55th to a 100th— since 2014. The IFPRI, the makers of this index, later clarified that since the list of countries has been widened with inclusion of countries that were ahead of India, its fall in ranking is an indication of a different accounting policy rather than any sudden massive failure of public policy.

Objectively speaking, India registered a steady decrease in hunger over time, from a score of 46.2 in 1992 to 38.2 in 2000 to 35.6 in 2008 to 31.4 in 2017.

India has gradually improved its rank

While the score improved  over time, a general question arises how is this ranking done? And, why is India’s performance so dismal over the years? And, is it Modi government’s policies that are responsible for a reduction in India’s rank?

This global hunger report [PDF] uses the following four parameters to evaluate the hunger index:

  1. The percentage of the population that is undernourished. [weight one-third]
  2. The percentage of children under five years old who suffer from low wasting that is low weight-for-height ratio [weight one-sixth]
  3. The percentage of children under five years old who suffer from stunting that is low height-for-age ratio [weight one-sixth]
  4. The percentage of children who die before the age of five (child mortality). [weight one-third]

The metrics used to calculate the Hunger Index

If we see the percentage of the undernourished population, India is not doing too bad with about 14.5% (FAO data 2014-16) of India being undernourished. We improved from the figure of 16.3% during 2007-09. The corresponding number for China is a bit better at 9.6%. But for North Korea (a country that is ranked ahead of India) that number is a massive 40.8%.

Similarly, the under-five mortality rate in India has also decreased to 4.8% in 2015 down from 6.6% in 2008.  While it is still high compared to many countries, it is not abysmally low.

India’s performance is simply poor regarding percentage of under 5 year old wasted and stunted children. The corresponding numbers for India stand at 21.0% and 38.4%, which are way higher than China (1.8% and 6.3% respectively). While China can be acknowledged to have done better than India, the magnitude is simply too high to convey any meaningful explanation. And, it is this parameter that always goes particularly against India in this hunger index.

The intention of inclusion of these parameters is noble: Children’s undernourishment must be punished more harshly than the adults’ in the index, as children are the future. However, the measurement methodology may simply be wrong, as Arvind Panagariya put forth, in his research article in 2013:

A common continuing criticism of the economic reforms in India has been that despite accelerated growth and all-around poverty reduction, the country continues to suffer from worse child malnutrition than nearly all Sub-Saharan African countries with lower per-capita incomes. This narrative, nearly universally accepted around the world, is false. It is the artefact of a faulty methodology that the World Health Organisation has pushed and the United Nations has supported.

This methodology clubs the height and weight data about all children of the world together and on the basis of that ranking, calls the below average children wasted or stunted.

The relevant question is, what determines height of a child? Is it gene or is it nourishment? The WHO methodology completely ignores the genetic fctors. It is fully possible (as Arvind Panagariya argues in his article) that genetics has some role in determining heights and weights of under-five children. That story would say that an Indian child with healthy nourishment often ends up with less height or weight compared to her African counterpart and thereby he/she is wrongly treated as wasted or stunted.

Panagariya makes his case by comparing Kerala to a Sub-Saharan African country called Senegal. Not only Kerala has more per-capita income compared to Senegal but also much more female literacy (92%) too (Senegal at 29%). Not surpisingly, Senegal has 4.25 times the infant mortality rate of Kerala, almost six times Kerala’s under-five mortality, and 4.3 times Kerala’s maternal mortality ratio. Nevertheless, data wise Senegal has lower rates of stunted and wasted children!

Surely an Impossibility!

This is not an exception but a representative story with respect to India and sub-Saharan Africa. We can observe accordingly that though India fares well in all other objective indicators of undernourishment in Global Hunger Index to an extent, it does poorly with respect to rates of stunted and wasted children (determined by above methodology of WHO). This is what particularly makes India lowly placed below Iraq or North Korea.

In case of India’s performance in 2014-16 compared to 2007-09, India improved its performance for all parameters expect the proportion of wasted children which has gone up by one percent (from 20.0% to 21.0%). Wasting is typically a rather long-term nutritional outcomes (compared to say proportion of undernourished population).

India’s possible failure to improve upon may reflect failure of public policy in the entire last decade (much of which has not been made by the present government). Many suggest sanitation to be an important determinant of reduction in wasting and stunting. If that is true, then a future survey can indicate how far the current government’s emphasis on sanitary issues is successful to make an impact regarding these health issues of children.

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Kausik Gangopadhyay
Economist by training; humanist in yearning. Interested in Dharma, Culture & Civilisation.

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