Has hunger increased in India in recent years?

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The Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has ranked India at the 100th position among 119 countries in its 2017 Global Hunger Index (GHI) rankings. India has had a higher rank in previous versions of these rankings. These findings have created an impression that the prevalence of hunger has increased in India in recent years.

A closer looks at the numbers suggests that such conclusions are unwarranted. To start with, the numbers reflect under-nutrition rather than hunger. And even on that score, India’s performance, as measured by IFPRI, has been improving over the past decade although its nutritional indicators still appear poor compared to those of its peers.

The 2017 GHI rankings are based on the percentage of under-nourished population and three health indicators for children aged less than five years: wasting (low weight for height); stunting (low height for age) and mortality. The actual score is a weighted average of standardized values of these four indicators. Under-nourishment and under-five mortality have a weight of one-third while stunting and wasting have one-sixth weights each.

The standardization procedure converts each of these values into a percentage figure based on the difference between the values and the maximum value each variable attained in the period 1983-2012. For example, the highest value of undernourished population was 76.5% during this period. The standardized value of prevalence of hunger is taken as percentage share of 80. The GHI can take values between zero to hundred. Zero would indicate absence of any of the four indicators, while hundred would indicate the worst possible situation.

This standardization procedure has been used for the first time in GHI scores. The 2017 report also gives standardization based scores for 1992, 2000 and 2008 in addition to 2017. India has reduced its GHI score from 46.2 to 31.4 between 1992 and 2017. This means that the problem of under-nutrition has actually gone down.

The reduction in the GHI score is not surprising given what the statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) show. FAO data shows that prevalence of undernourishment has been decreasing in India over the past decade. According to statistics from the NFHS, except a marginal increase in wasting, child nutrition indicators have recorded an improvement in India over the past decade.

India’s low rank on the hunger index shows that India still fares poorly when compared to other countries when it comes to under-nutrition. But this does not mean that there has been a deterioration on this count.