Burning Issues

[Burning Issue] India’s quest for Zero Hunger

Food has deep ties to culture, religion, ethnicity and most Indians regard food as sanctified or holy. We celebrate, mourn, express, entertain, donate and thrive on the food, boasting of countless regional delicacies, inherited recipes, as we continue to seek pride in our spicy curries and rich sugary deserts.

The latest Global Hunger Index 2020 study does not make for cheery reading for India. The study has placed India 94th out of 107 countries in terms of hunger, locating it in the ‘severe’ hunger category. This puts India alongside the poorest African nations.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI)

  • The GHI has been brought out almost every year by Welthungerhilfe lately in partnerships with Concern Worldwide since 2000; this year’s report is the 14th one.
  • The reason for mapping hunger is to ensure that the world achieves “Zero Hunger by 2030” — one of the SDGs laid out by the UN.
  • A low score gets a country a higher ranking and implies better performance. It is for this reason that GHI scores are not calculated for certain high-income countries.
  • Each country’s data are standardised on a 100-point scale and a final score is calculated after giving 33.33% weight each to components 1 and 4 and giving 16.66% weight each to components 2 and 3.

GHI composition

India’s performance this year

  • In the 2020 GHI, India ranks 94th out of the 107 countries with sufficient data to calculate 2020 GHI scores.
  • With a score of 27.2, India has a level of hunger that is serious.
  • The situation has worsened in the 2015-19 period, when the prevalence of child wasting was 17.3%, in comparison to 2010-14, when it was 15.1%.
  • India fares worst in child wasting (low weight for height, reflecting acute undernutrition) and child stunting (low height for age, reflecting chronic undernutrition), which together make up a third of the total score.
  • In the region of the south, east and south-eastern Asia, the only countries which fare worse than India are Timor-Leste, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Worse among its neighbours

  • As per the study, roughly 14 per cent of the country’s population remains undernourished.
  • To put this into perspective, China and Brazil, perhaps the only two countries with populations comparable to India’s had under-nourishment rates under 2.5 per cent. 
  • India has improved its rank by 8 positions from last year but still sits behind the majority of its South Asian neighbours – Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
  • Only Afghanistan, ranked 99th, is worse off than India. 

The starvation challenge

  • According to ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ report compiled by the FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, India was home to 189.2 million (28 per cent) of the 673 million undernourished people in the world as of 2017-2019.
  • It also accounted for 28 per cent of the world’s stunted (low height-for-age) children under the age of five, and 43 per cent of the world’s wasted children (Low weight-for-height). 
  • In terms of overall undernourishment, 14% of India’s population does not get enough calories, an improvement from almost 20% in 2005-07.
  • From a productivity standpoint, India ranks 158 (out of 195) in the Lancet human capital study owing to the anaemic, underweight or obese workforce.

Why are we still battling hunger? 

Often consumption of egg is as big a taboo as beef is, while one can consume sugar (ending up with diabetes) all day long and be religiously compliant.

  • There is an interesting difference observed between child wasting in South Asia and the poorer nations of Africa, according to researchers.
  • African babies are usually healthy at birth, but as they grow up into their toddler years, undernourishment starts to kick in.
  • South Asian babies, on the other hand, show very high levels of wasting very early in their lives, within the first six months.
  • This reflects the poor state of maternal health, more than anything else.

(1) Poor Maternal health

  • Mothers are too young, too short, too thin and too undernourished themselves, before they get pregnant, during pregnancy, and then after giving birth, during breast-feeding.
  • Almost 42% of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have a low body mass index (BMI), while 54% have anaemia.
  • Almost 27% of girls are married before they reach the legal age of 18 years, and 8% of adolescents have begun childbearing in their teens.
  • Almost half of all women have no access to any sort of contraception. These poor indicators of maternal health have dire consequences for the child’s health as well.

(2) Poor sanitation

  • Poor sanitation, leading to diarrhoea, is another major cause of child wasting and stunting. At the time of the last NFHS, almost 40% of households were still practising open defecation.
  •  Only 36% of households disposed of children’s stools in a safe manner. One in 10 children under the age of five suffers from diarrhoea.

(3) Food insecurity

  • Low dietary diversity in India is also a key factor in child malnutrition.
  • Although India has overall food security with record levels of foodgrain production in recent years, access to healthy food is still difficult for poor households.
  • A recent study showed that three out of four rural Indians cannot afford the cheapest possible diet that meets the requirements set by the government’s premier nutrition body.

(4) Poverty

  • Almost 50 million households in India are dependent on these small and marginal holdings.
  • Though we have surplus food, most small and marginal farming households do not produce enough food grains due to cash crops production. 
  • The relative income of poorer section of people has been on the decline due to many factors (say COVID). This has adverse effects on their capacity to buy adequate food.

(5) Livelihood loss

  • The emaciated rural livelihoods sector and lack of income opportunities other than the farm sector have contributed heavily to the growing joblessness in rural areas.
  • The Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 revealed that rural unemployment stood at a concerning 6.1 per cent, which was the highest since 1972-73.
  • The kinds of work a section of people has been doing are less remunerative or there is less opportunity to get remunerative works.

(6) Dietary habits

  • Indian diets typically involve copious consumption of staples such as rice and wheat, with limited dietary diversification toward micronutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, and animal products.
  • The vegetarian vs non-vegetarian identity is usually determined by religion, irrespective of body type and nature of work.
  • Even when people have enough money they tend to gravitate towards expensive food and indulging in calories, like modern confectionary or fats.

(7) Policy failures

  • The national food security approach has been hung up in a ‘defeat the famine’ mode, which aims to provide gross calorie availability via the National Food Security Act (NFSA).
  • The MGNREGS continue to be the lone rural job programme that, too, had been weakened over the years through great delays in payments and non-payments, low wages and reduced scope of employment.
  • The public distribution system (PDS) fair price shops often fail to function due to supply delays.
  • While this stable and subsidised policy has helped counter the problem of absolute hunger, it limits the food choices and does not provide the needed nutrients and micro-nutrients.

What can be done?

Below are some multidimensional ideas which have proven to be effective over the past century across countries that can be helpful.

(1) Diversify food basket

  • The recent agro reforms which promote contract farming and scraps the archaic colonial tyrannical essential commodities act seem to be policy steps in the right direction.
  • States level agro agencies need to ensure effective implementation of these reforms and assist with appropriate means to cover for the need for fruits, micro-nutrients, pulses.

(2) Harness the legacy ICDS

  • India’s 1.4 million Anganwadi workers – the core component of the nation’s Integrated Child Development Services – play a vital role in ending the cycle of undernourishment witnessed particularly in rural areas.
  • There is a real need to further empower these workers towards improving the overall nutritional status of the country.
  • Allowing these workers to leverage digital technologies, for instance, in creating awareness over basic health and nutrition, could prove to be an invaluable intervention that leads to much-improved outcomes. 

(3) Go beyond PDS stuffs

  • Learning from other low-income societies with successful micro-nutrient based interventions, we need to redefine the scope and mechanism of the PDS programmes to extend beyond funnelling cheap or free grains and generate higher fidelity using the vast local network.
  • Promising lessons can be seen in Mexico’s distribution system of nutrition pouches and the SMS-based digital PDS in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh where the distribution involves pulses and millets in addition to rice and salt.

(4) Biofortification of food

  • “Hidden hunger,” or micronutrient deficiency, that inhibits proper growth and development of the human mind and body, affects a large section of the Indian population.
  • Plenty of studies across the world show that bio-fortification can turn out to be an extremely cost-effective solution to improving households’ diet. 
  • Biofortification can be a key food-based approach to tackle malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency, especially among the poor who cannot afford high-value foods.

(5) Empower the mother, before all

  • Studies have indicated that one of the chief determinants of malnutrition is that of the mother’s education.
  • India has made some headway in improving female literary, but as of 2015-2016, only 13.7 per cent of women had, reportedly, received higher education – a startlingly low figure.
  • A lack of basic facilities like separate female toilets in schools, along with the large distances between girls’ homes and schools are key factors that contribute to the high dropout rates witnessed among young females. 

Way forward

  • To begin with, small steps can be taken to deal with the crisis. The government may create provisions to supply cooked nutritious food to the vulnerable section of society.
  • This has to be done in addition to the existing provisions of healthy diets from Anganwadi and schools through mid-day meals for children, mothers and students.
  • Rural employment schemes such as MGNREGA should be given a boost to increase employment and wages.
  • Finally, a strong inverse correlation exists between female education and under-nutrition, indicating that facilitating women’s education could have significant multiplier effects.
  • This can be reflected not just on food security, but in child feeding practices and sanitation.


  • Malnutrition continues to be the largest underlying epidemic in our society. In India, the Covid-19 containment measures have brought out the multi-dimensionality of India’s diverse food challenges.
  • The problem does not seem limited to the countryside and gets further complicated in developed areas which perceivably have enough food on the table.
  • For decades, India has accorded the highest priority to building roads and highways and power generation, considering these sectors are critical for economic growth.
  • Time is now ripe, in bridging the divide between short-term relief and long-term development goals for which food security is the important milestone.


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