"Hunger as a no-brainer", 'Mint', 21 October 2008.



Even as there is a quiet congratulation in certain circles in India on the relative insulation of its economy, at least of its banks, from the financial meltdown in the United States and Europe we have news that is far from re-assuring for its political managers. A team of researchers at the New Delhi Office of the International Food Policy Research Institute are the bearers of tidings less than cheerful but gravely significant for its economy. Among the development indices that have come out of the United Nations System the most recent is the Global Hunger Index (2008). As the name suggests, it aims to capture the extent of food deprivation. Purnima Menon, Anil Deolalikar and Anjor Bhaskar have extended the methodology underlying this index to a study of India’s states. We now have a picture of the incidence and distribution of hunger across 17 states in this country accounting for 95 percent of the population, and it is not pretty. In a comparison of India with the 88 countries for which an index of hunger exists, India ranked 66th. This should worry us sufficiently. However, there is more to come. The contribution of these Indian authors is to have enabled the placing of hunger across India in a global perspective. To get the full picture, note that the GHI (2008) adopts a five-fold classification of the level of hunger, ranging from ‘low’, ‘’moderate’, and ‘serious’ to ‘alarming’ and ‘extremely alarming’. The authors find that not a single Indian state falls in the first two categories, most states falling into the ‘alarming’ category and one – Madhya Pradesh – falling in the ‘extremely alarming’ category. It should surprise many that Punjab, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Assam fall into the ‘serious’ category of hunger as these have been at the forefront of development in India though variously defined.

            It is not as if these results ought to be taken without salt. The hunger index is an average of three indicators, namely, calorie undernourishment, child (under) weight and the death rate among children under five, each given the same weight. The rationale for their inclusion is that they represent the three interlinked dimensions of hunger, being inadequate consumption, child malnutrition and child mortality. Mortality itself is seen as the most extreme manifestation of continued hunger and undernourishment. Some quibbling is possible over the weighting scheme and some scepticism advanced over the finding that Kerala is among the most undernourished regions of the country. The latter is counter-intuitive, not only as we know independently that Kerala is among the least poor of the Indian states, but also that according to the authors’ estimates it has less underweight children and lower child mortality by far than the states of India. The high estimated undernourishment in Kerala weakens the authors’ claim that calorie intake – intuitively the most proximate to hunger – is linked to weight and mortality, the very basis of the GHI. We also know that child mortality is related to public health outreach which is independent of nutrition.

            But be all this as it may, the IFPRI Report on the India State Hunger Index (ISHI) is a valuable contribution to a necessary evaluation of where the Indian economy stands today and the direction that national economic policy should now take. The last is facilitated by the demonstration by the authors that in a cross-country comparison India has more hunger than warranted by the level of its income. In particular, we find that the index for India is higher than that for several economies of sub-Saharan Africa which have a lower per capita income (some significantly so). The prevalence of hunger in India cannot be put down to the level of income or even some definition of ‘national capacity’. The distribution of income is crucial here. This is confirmed by the additional finding of the authors’ that growth per se does not eliminate hunger. No clear relation emerges when state-wise income growth over the previous five years is compared to the level of hunger. For instance, states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat that have had high growth recently turn in a high ISHI. Of course, it may be argued that growth over too short a period has been considered here, but the conclusion that something more than merely growth in the aggregate may be required is not necessarily counter-intuitive.      

            The finding of widespread hunger in India, when measured by a globally applicable yardstick, points to the need to re-orient radically the focus of economic policy in India. Over the past fifteen years economic policy in India has been addressed to the integration of India to the rest of the world via trade liberalisation and has been characterised by an eagerness to benchmark India with global benchmarks of ‘economic freedom’ meaning freer markets. While the latter is not necessarily always undesirable, though the financial meltdown would caution us to keep our own counsel, economic policy has systematically neglected the foundational weakness of the Indian economy, which is the failure to produce food cheaply. Food remains expensive in India by international standards. A simple indicator of this is that average per capita expenditure on food in India is over 50 percent while in the Untied States today is less than 10. At least since 1991, economic policymakers in India have mostly failed to appreciate that what lies behind the rise of the West is the sustained original revolution in the production of food. Cheaper food is the level of riches, for it releases purchasing power and makes industry and services flourish. Instead they focus exclusively on the ‘economic regime’, namely the degree of government intervention in the economy.  Note the hoarse exhortation to usher in capital convertibility, which only a year ago had found a supporter in our economist prime minister but in the light of recent events must count as the policy that dare not speak its name. Rather than respond with cries of ‘shame’ or ‘tragedy’ India must see these findings on hunger as an opportunity to eradicate it and to release the forces of potential demand. From an economic point of view, allowing hunger to persist is a no-brainer.