Global Hunger Index: Scourge of Undernourished and Wasting India

By Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*

The problem of hunger is complex, and different terms are used to describe its various forms. Hunger has afflicted people throughout history. The first written record of famine was in Egypt in the year 3500 BC. Now hunger is eating into India. Politicians talk about hunger for electoral dividends but rarely plan to eradicate it. While dreaming to become a superpower, India has failed to provide its people with that most basic of rights: freedom from hunger. What is reprehensible is that hunger is pervasive, people are starving when India’s godowns are overflowing.

This is corroborated by reports of successive Global Hunger Indexes (GHI) prepared by Concern Worldwide, an Irish aid agency, and Welt Hunger Hilfe, a German organisation. India has slipped seven places to rank 101 in 2021 report that was released October 14, 2021. India had ranked at 94 among 107 countries on the 2020 Index.

Created in 2006, the GHI was initially published by the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Germany-based Welthungerhilfe. In 2007, the Irish NGO Concern Worldwide also became a co-publisher. In 2018, IFPRI stepped aside from its involvement in the project and the GHI became a joint project of Welthungerhilfe and Concern Worldwide.

Hunger is usually understood to refer to the distress associated with a lack of sufficient calories. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines food deprivation, or undernourishment, as the consumption of too few calories to provide the minimum amount of dietary energy that each individual requires to live a healthy and productive life, given that person’s sex, age, stature, and physical activity.

Undernutrition goes beyond calories and signifies deficiencies in any or all of the following: energy, protein, and/or essential vitamins and minerals. Undernutrition is the result of inadequate intake of food in terms of either quantity or quality, poor utilization of nutrients due to infections or other illnesses, or a combination of these factors. These, in turn, are caused by a range of factors, including household food insecurity; inadequate maternal health or childcare practices; or inadequate access to health services, safe water, and sanitation.

Malnutrition refers more broadly to both undernutrition (problems caused by deficiencies) and overnutrition (problems caused by unbalanced diets, such as consuming too many calories in relation to requirements with or without low intake of micronutrient-rich foods.

Starvation is extreme suffering or death, caused by lack of food. Starvation is a severe deficiency in caloric energy intake, below the level needed to maintain an organism’s life. It is the most extreme form of malnutrition. In humans, prolonged starvation can cause permanent organ damage and eventually, death. The term inanition refers to the symptoms and effects of starvation. It may also be used as a means of torture or execution. By contrast, a famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including war, inflation, crop failure, population imbalance, or government policies.

GHI scores are calculated each year to assess progress and setbacks in combating hunger. The GHI is designed to raise awareness and understanding of the struggle against hunger, provide a way to compare levels of hunger between countries and regions, and call attention to those areas of the world where hunger levels are highest and where the need for additional efforts to eliminate hunger is greatest.

The GHI is a tool for comprehensively measuring and tracking hunger at global, regional, and national levels. It includes four indicators to reflect the multidimensional nature of hunger (i.e., deficiencies in calories as well as in micronutrients). Those four indicators are undernourishment (the share of the population with insufficient caloric intake), child wasting (the share of children under five years who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition), child stunting (the share of children under five who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition) and child mortality (the mortality rate of children under five, partly reflecting the fatal mix of inadequate nutrition and unhealthy environments).

The GHI scores on a 100-point GHI Severity Scale, where 0 is the best score (no hunger) and 100 is the worst. In practice, neither of these extremes is reached. A value of 0 would mean that a country had no undernourished people in the population, no children younger than five who were wasted or stunted, and no children who died before their fifth birthday. A value of 100 would signify that a country’s undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality levels were each at approximately the highest levels observed worldwide.

Each country’s GHI score is classified by severity, from low to extremely alarming. The severity of hunger associated with the range of possible GHI scores is as follows: low (9.9), moderate (10.0-19.9), serious (20.0-34.9), alarming (3.0-49.9), extremely alarming ≥50. The level of hunger in India was ‘serious’ according to the report. Some 36 other countries besides India were categorised thus. The level of hunger in nine countries was ‘alarming’. It was ‘extremely alarming’ in Somalia, which ranked 116 on the Index this year.

The 2021 GHI scores include data from 2016-2020. For the 2021 report, data were assessed for 135 countries. Out of these, there were sufficient data to calculate GHI scores for 116 countries (in comparison, 107 countries were ranked in the 2020 report). For 19 countries, individual scores could not be calculated, and ranks could not be determined owing to a lack of data.

GHI scores and rankings are comparable only within each year’s report, not between different years’ reports, owing to revisions of the source data and methodology. To track a country’s GHI performance over time, each report includes GHI scores and indicator data for three reference years. In the 2021 report, India’s GHI scores can be directly compared with its GHI scores for 2000, 2006, and 2012.

It is important to note that any developments in 2021 are not yet reflected in the latest prevalence of undernourishment data, which covers 2018-2020. The full effects of the Covid-19 pandemic will likely only be reflected in the GHI data in the coming years.

What is reprehensible is that India is behind its neighbours like Nepal (76), Bangladesh (76), Myanmar (71), and Pakistan (92) in eliminating hunger. At this rate, 47 countries including India, will be unable to achieve a low level of hunger by 2030. In fact, India’s rank dropped by two places in the Global Sustainable Development Report 2021, primarily because of major challenges like ending hunger and achieving food security.

Around 18 countries, including China, Brazil, and Kuwait, shared the top rank, with GHI scores of less than five. Only 15 other countries ranked below India on the Index. Only 15 other countries ranked below India on the Index. These include Afghanistan (103), Nigeria (103), Congo (105), Mozambique (106), Sierra Leone (106), Liberia (110), Madagascar (111), Democratic Republic of Congo (112), Chad (113), Central African Republic (114), Somalia (116).

According to the report, 15.3 per cent of the population of India is undernourished, 17.3 per cent of children under five are wasted, 34.7 per cent of children under five are stunted, and 3.4 per cent of children die before their fifth birthday. In fact, since 2000, India has made some progress, India’s score on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) in the recent two decades has declined by 10 points. It slipped to 28.8 in 2021, from 38.8 in 2000. But with a score of 27.5, India has a level of hunger that is serious being in the inglorious company of some 36 countries.

Though India showed improvement in indicators such as the under-5 mortality rate, the prevalence of stunting among children, and the prevalence of undernourishment owing to inadequate food remained high. Globally, India ranked among the worst in ‘child wasting’ or ‘weight for height’. Its performance was worse than Djibouti and Somalia. The report said that wasting among children in India increased from 17.1per cent between 1998 and 2002 to 17.3 per cent between 2016 and 2020. it further said food security is under assault on multiple fronts.

When our honourable Prime Minister talks about the duties, he must also be aware of the duties of a government in a welfare state. He must gracefully accept scorching denunciations and responsibilities for his government’s abysmal failure in curbing hunger, poverty, unemployment, and inequality. For a government, the most important responsibility is to ensure that nobody dies out of hunger and malnutrition.

When any agency, organisation -how unscientific, irrational, illogical, injudicious in approach – it may be – appreciates the present Indian government, the ruling party accepts it with alacrity, celebrates with thunderous applause, and leaves no stone unturned to derive political mileage. But when any agency, organisation -how scientific, rational, judicious it may be in its assessment, if it exposes failures of the ruling class, the ruling suddenly snubs and rejects it without addressing the weakness revealed by agencies.

After a dip in India’s ranking in the Global Hunger Index 2021, instead of accepting failure, India’s Women and Child Development Ministry described the report as shocking; dubbed methodology as ‘unscientific, and ‘devoid of ground reality. It accused the publishing agencies of lack of diligence before releasing the report. The ‘undernourishment’ indicator, was the one area, where India’s performance deteriorated relative to previous years. But ministry claims that the value of a key indicator used in the Global Hunger Index is ‘inflated’ as there are only 3.9 per cent Anganwadi children found to be undernourished.

It further accused that publishing agencies have based their assessment on the results of a ‘four question’ opinion poll, which was conducted telephonically by Gallup. The Ministry also said instead of relying on a poll, the Index should have used measurement of weight and height to calculate the ‘undernourishment’ indicator.

According to Miriam Wiemers, Advisor Global Hunger Index, Undernourishment is a measure of the proportion of the population with inadequate access to calories and is based on data regarding the food supply in the country. It is not a measure of weight and height,” “Stunting and wasting measure undernutrition of the child population, but that is different from the undernourishment indicator,”. so, the government’s argument that the index should have used weight and height falls flat on its face. India — has agreed upon the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the GHI uses indicators that are part of the internationally recognised indicator set to measure progress toward the SDGs.

In reality, the GHI is a report that is peer-reviewed by external experts. The GHI report includes the most up-to-date data available at the time of its editorial deadline in July and applies the same standards to all countries within the report to ensure comparability. The methodology has long been established and tested. The data used to come up with the Index this time was from 2016–2020. Like other countries data for India are collected from the same institutions.

For India’s 2021 GHI score, data on the four component indicators came from the following sources: Undernourishment values are from the 2021 edition of the FAO Food Security Indicators (published July 12, 2021, accessed July 12, 2021). FAO’s Gallup telephone-based opinion indicator – the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) – is not used in the GHI. The GHI uses the prevalence of the 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.

Child stunting and wasting data are from the 2021 edition of UNICEF, WHO, and World Bank Joint Child Malnutrition Estimates (published April 2021, accessed May 24, 2021), including data from India’s Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016–2018 (CNNS) National Report (published 2019). Under-five mortality rates are taken from the 2020 edition of the UN IGME (Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation) Child Mortality Estimates (published September 9, 2020, accessed May 24, 2021). Each of the indicator values is standardized and weighted. The standardized scores are aggregated to calculate the GHI score for each country.

It is argued that the corona pandemic has aggravated the pangs of hunger and India’s ranking. But India’s ranking is on the decline since Narendra Modi rode to power. India had ranked at 55 in 2014 before declining to 101 in 20021. India’s rank has been revolving between 100 and 103 since 2017. Further, it is not only in hunger index but in all other indexes like human development index (131 out of 189 countries), global happiness index 144 out of 154 countries), global peace index (135 out of 163 countries), corruption perception Index (86 out of 180 countries).

In terms of population, taking into consideration the additional statistical uncertainty, it is estimated that between 720 and 811 million people in the world faced hunger in 2020. In 2019, around 194.4 million faced hunger in India. This must have increased further in 2020 in India.

The ministry further said that the report “completely disregards the government’s massive effort to ensure food security of the entire population during the Covid-19 period. But the government must be aware of the fact that just announcing some schemes is not important, its implementation and outcome are vital.

While making health education unaffordable, imposing indirect taxes more -that is regressive and taxes the rich and poor more, failing to control prices of essential commodities, and inflation- that erodes the purchasing power of people couple with the decline in jobs have decimated lives of the masses. Undernourishment has got 33 per cent weightage in the hunger index. Had the GHI been estimated using the latest data on calorie intake, based on the national sample Survey office, things might have looked even more depressing, somber, and dingy.

War, drought, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other human-made and natural disasters have all led to famine. But poverty is the main cause of hunger that afflicts many millions of people. When compounded by other factors, its effects can be dramatic. India faces gruelling hunger because of its wrong policies especially not addressing the root causes of problems. The corona has only exacerbated hunger paroxysm. According to the Global Hunger Index 2021, conflict, climate change, and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic have exacerbated the food security situation across the globe including India.

When nourishment is linked with calorie intake. It is childish on the part of the ministry to talk of Prime Minister’s Gariba Kalyan Yojana. Actually, this scheme along with the Rs.1 per kg rice scheme of some states is designed to tackle starvation not to improve the standard of living or calorie intake. No scheme will work properly when the government’s anti-people and pro-rich, pro-corporate policies are in vogues as those impair and dampen the standard of livings of people and batter their ability to have access to necessary calorie intake.



The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.


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