India’s hunger problem is getting worse

Cast out and impoverished groups continue to experience chronic poverty and hunger. As the problem gets worse, the government points to inaccurate statistics instead of providing solutions.

India’s strictly hierarchical social order, which is fractured along caste, religious, ethnic and gender lines, continues to exacerbate the poverty and hunger that affects mostly the country’s severely marginalised communities. 

According to a new United Nations study, five out of every six multidimensionally impoverished people in India are from the so-called lower caste group Adivasi or Scheduled Tribes. An estimated 8.8% of India’s population lives in severe multidimensional poverty while 19.3% are at risk of falling within that category.

Instead of understanding poverty through indicators based on financial income, multidimensional poverty, according to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), encompasses the numerous deprivations experienced by impoverished people in their daily lives. It takes into account such realities as poor health, lack of education, inadequate living standards, disempowerment, lack of quality work and the threat of violence, among others.

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Scheduled Tribes, or Adivasi, are said to be India’s earliest inhabitants. The term Adivasi is derived from “Adi”, which means “earliest time”, with “vasi” meaning “resident of”. Loosely translated, it simply means indigenous people. It is a designation rejected by the Indian state, which perceives such labels as “divisive [and] undermining [to] the unity of the Indian nation”.

“In India, the Scheduled Tribes group accounts for 9.4% of the population and is the poorest, with more than half – 65 million of 129 million people – living in multidimensional poverty,” says a report on poverty by the United Nations Development Programme and the OPHI.

“The Scheduled Caste group follows with 33.3% – 94 million of 283 million people – living in multidimensional poverty,” states the report. It also found that 27.2% of the so-called Other Backward Class (castes that are educationally or socially disadvantaged) – 160 million of 588 million people – live in multidimensional poverty and shows “a lower incidence but a similar intensity compared with the Scheduled Caste group”.

Disenfranchised minorities

​As per a 2011 census, people designated under Scheduled Tribes account for 8.6% of India’s total population and largely inhabit the states of Madhya Pradesh (12.23 million), Maharashtra (8.58 million), Odisha (8.15 million), Jharkhand (7.1 million), Chhattisgarh (6.16 million), Andhra Pradesh, together with Telangana (5.02 million) and West Bengal (4.4 million).

Scheduled Tribes is a term derived from a schedule in the Constitution Order of 1950. The term “tribe” was first used by the British colonists who, from their experiences of Africa and America, thought of these people as less than and, like other so-called lower tribes, organised on kinship and in a “stage of evolution”.

Moreover, Scheduled Tribes do not fit precisely into Hindu caste structures. They are people who have distinctive (generally non-Hindu) cultural, religious and social traditions. Unlike Dalits and Scheduled Castes, they are not subject to ritual exclusions such as untouchability. They are outside the caste system.

In response to the burden of social stigma and “economic backwardness” borne by people belonging to India’s “untouchable castes”, the Constitution of India allows for special provisions for members of these castes. The Sudras, who traditionally performed menial jobs, form part of the “other backward classes”.

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The report further highlights that among the 1.3 billion multidimensionally impoverished people studied globally, almost two-thirds – that is, 836 million – live in households where no female member has completed at least six years of schooling. “This exclusion of women from education has far-reaching impacts on societies around the world,” it says.

These 836 million people live mostly in sub-Saharan Africa (363 million) and South Asia (350 million), with seven countries accounting for more than 500 million of them. These are India (with 227 million), Pakistan (71 million), Ethiopia (59 million), Nigeria (54 million), China (32 million), Bangladesh (30 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (27 million).

​The study also acknowledges that the economic ramifications of the Covid-19 outbreak have placed severe strain on impoverished people who work informally or in precarious jobs. They are among the most vulnerable to losing their jobs owing to a lack of social security. “Half of global multidimensionally poor people are children. And although pre-pandemic multidimensional poverty levels were declining, the poorest countries lacked emergency social protections during the Covid-19 pandemic and could suffer the most,” it says.

The three Cs

​India has also been ranked a lowly 101 out of 116 nations in the latest 2021 Global Hunger Index (GHI), illustrating the country’s deteriorating poverty status. India is one of 31 countries in which cases of severe hunger have been documented. The country trails behind its South Asian neighbours Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

A GHI score is calculated from four indicators: undernourishment (which reflects inadequate food availability), child wasting (the share of children under the age of five who have low weight for their height, reflecting acute undernutrition), child stunting (children under the age of five who have low height for their age, reflecting chronic undernutrition) and child mortality (the mortality rate of children under the age of five).

India slipped from its 2020 position of 94 on the list. In contrast, 18 countries – including China, Brazil and Kuwait – fared well on the index, recording a score of less than five.

The report, which was released in October and prepared jointly by Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, a German aid organisation, mentioned the level of hunger in India as “alarming”, with its GHI score decelerating from 38.8 in 2000 to a range of 28.8 to 27.5 between 2012 and 2021.

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The prevalence of child wasting also rose from 17.1% between 1998 and 2002 to 17.3% between 2016 and 2020. “People have been severely hit by Covid-19 and by pandemic-related restrictions in India, the country with [the] highest child-wasting rate worldwide,” the study found.

Though India showed improvement in indicators such as the under-five mortality rate, prevalence among children of stunting and undernourishment remained high, the report says, adding that food security in the country is threatened by many different factors.

The report underlines that it is difficult to be optimistic in 2021 because of the forces that drive hunger in the first place. Among the most powerful and toxic of these are conflict, climate change and Covid-19. They are the “three Cs” that threaten to wipe out the progress that has been made in reducing hunger in recent years.

A feeble response

Humiliated by the scathing review, India’s government reacted strongly against the publishers of the index, claiming the methodology used for the rankings was “unscientific”. A statement from the Ministry of Women and Child Development said that the publishers had “not done their due diligence before releasing the report”. 

“It is shocking to find that the Global Hunger Report [of] 2021 has lowered the rank of India on the basis of a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate on proportion of undernourished population, which is found to be devoid of ground reality and facts and suffers from serious methodological issues,” the ministry said.

The FAO report with which the Indian government is not happy is called The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2021.

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The government has questioned the data on undernourishment provided by the FAO, and says it is based on a four-question telephone poll. “The scientific measurement of undernourishment would require measurement of weight and height, whereas the methodology involved here is based on a Gallup poll, [which is] based on a pure telephonic estimate of the population,” the government said.

The report completely disregards the state’s efforts to ensure food security for the entire population during the Covid-19 period, the ministry said. And it “noted, with surprise, that the other four countries of this region – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka – have not been affected at all by Covid-19 pandemic-induced loss of jobs/business and a reduction in income levels, rather they have been able to improve their position on the indicator.”

​In July, a State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report showed that India retains the dubious distinction of being the country with the largest population of food insecure people in the world. Estimates presented in the report show that the prevalence of moderate to severe food insecurity in India rose by about 6.8 percentage points between 2018 and 2020 – an increase of about 97 million people.

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