Hunger is India’s greatest problem even today. So why don’t we ever hear about it?

Shoaib Daniyal of Scroll asks this uncomfortable question. Given all the hype about India shining and fastest growing  economy in the world, we were ranked 97 in global hunger index.

Barring reporting of the index, there was barely any discussion on it. Why?

If there is one thing former President Abdul Kalam can not be accused of, it is a lack of optimism. In his book, India 2020, Kalam laid out a pollyannaish vision for how India could become a superpower by 2020. With less than four years to go for Kalam’s deadline, however, the International Food Policy Research Institute has ranked India at an abysmal 97th place globally in combatting hunger.

Called the Global Hunger Index, the report paints a reality very different from India 2020. Far from becoming a superpower, India has failed to provide its people with that most basic of rights: freedom from hunger.

Thirty nine per cent of Indian children under the age of five show stunted growth while 15% are wasted – which means they are getting so little food, it increases their chances of dying significantly. The lack of food available for Indian children, amongst other factors, means that that a shocking one out of every twenty children die before their fifth birthday.

Some of the countries that manage to offer more food security to their people include Kenya, Malawi and even war-torn Iraq. Except Pakistan, all of India’s neighbours – Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar – manage to outrank India on this list. To understand what this means in real terms, if India had managed to reach Sri Lanka’s child mortality rate, it could have saved more than an estimated 9 lakh of its children born in 2016 from dying by 2021. That’s the size of a town of dead children.

Given these horrific numbers, far from being a superpower, India is yet to reach the average developing country score on the Global Hunger Index.

Despite horrors, not much mention or care:

There are few topics that generate more emotion than that of hunger. In India’s democratic space, the country’s alarming hunger problem should therefore be a prime issue. But, surprisingly, that’s not the case. Hunger and malnutrition are fairly unimportant topics in Indian politics. The BBC ran a word frequency analysis of Narendra Modi’s speeches for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the top issues discussed were Gujarat, security, Congress, development, jobs and change. Food, hunger, malnutrition and related concepts simply didn’t feature in the soon-to-be-prime minister’s speeches.

Things weren’t much different after Modi took office. While the prime minister is a master communicator, skilfully channelling issues such as cleanliness in India, Balochistan and “Make in India” – the Union government’s pitch to push manufacturing in India – yet, conspicuously, hunger and malnutrition remain absent from his messaging. And this isn’t only an issue with Narendra Modi or the Bharatiya Janata Party. Onestudy found that only 3% of questions in Parliament related to children while only 5% of these questions related to early childhood care and development. This, in a country which has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world.

This isn’t only a problem with India’s politics – the media is complicit too. Hunger and, more broadly, health rarely makes the news with the same sort of urgency as, say, the prime minister addressing non-resident Indians in a Western nation.

Economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen actually went through editorials in India’s major newspaper for the last six months of 2012 and found that only 1% dealt with health. In their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, Drèze and Sen write that, “outside sub-Saharan Africa, one has to go to conflict-ravaged countries like Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq or Papua New Guinea to find lower immunisation rates than India’s”.

Yet, this alarming failure of governance in India produces no outrage either in India’s newspapers, television channels or its social media.


This stratification is causing immense harm to Indians who seem to be stuck in a poverty trap. As an illustration of just how slow India’s development is, it might be worthwhile to compare with neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal. In 2000, Bangladesh was ranked one place below India. In just 15 years, however, it shot past India and got itself placed 7 ranks ahead. In 2000, Nepal was only six ranks ahead of India. In 2016, however, Nepal was 25 places above India. India’s inability to offer its people the same development opportunities as those available to Nepalis or Bangladeshis is alarming. Moreover, the fact that the country’s elites don’t even realise that their country is falling behind is a sign that the situation doesn’t even look like it’s going to change soon.

This is hardly anything new really. One of the most irritating such omissions was related to Economic Survey presented just before the budget. The Survey usually has just one chapter devoted to such issues. In the last ES it was  called Social Infrastructure, Employment and Human Development. The media and experts create huge hype about projected growth rates and inflation and what not. But not one really looks at this one chapter. Reading of this one chapter alone undermines or questions all the achievements cited in the remaining chapters on other economic matters. Infact anyone talking about these issues is sadly branded as left wing and shunned..

Dariyal says part of the reason for continued ignorance are caste matters:

There are few issues as emotive as hunger or dying children. Yet, both politics and the media ignore them. The reasons are many but maybe the most important is the elite capture of the national narrative by upper castes. India might have an alarming health crisis on its hands but its unique caste system also means that upper castes are hermetically sealed off from the problem.

If not hunger but lack of diversity issues are picking up in US. So may be our experts start waking up to the issues as well. Really sensitive issues but need to be addressed urgently…



2 Responses to “Hunger is India’s greatest problem even today. So why don’t we ever hear about it?”

  1. MS Says:

    Amol, a study across time would have been more illuminating – has Indian hunger and poverty situation improved due to liberalization ? Forget politicized notes from the likes of Jean Dreze, a quantification would help answer if trickle-down has worked at all. And somebody is doing WORD COUNTS? Seriously, whatever happened to real policy analysis and prescriptive approach?

    Instead of analyzing India’a unique problems, we get stuff like “Upper caste capture”. Facile explanations !!

  2. Linkfest - Kairos Capital Says:

    […] Hunger is India’s greatest problem (Mostly Economics) […]

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