Thursday, August 15, 2013

Hunger and Malnutrition

with Prof. Charan Singh, IIMB


 Does India suffer from food insecurity, hunger or undernutrition?  According to FAO, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for an active and healthy life. And hunger, as professionally defined, is a condition, in which people lack the basic food intake to provide them with energy and nutrients for fully productive lives. Still more important is undernutrition, which can exist in the absence of hunger and can be caused by non-food factors. Under-nutrition can result from critical lack of nutrients in an individual’s diet,  weakened immune system and inability to absorb nutrients. A weakened immune system can make people susceptible to diseases which in turn can lower appetite and nutrient absorption. The weakening of the absorptive capacity of the stomach due to gastrointestinal diseases and germs can lead to reduced nutrient intake even when sufficient nutrients are available in the diet. Under nutrition increases the risk of chronic diseases and its impact lasts lifelong.


  Hunger and Under nutrition are the most persistent challenges for policy makers. According to FAO, 18 percent of India’s population was undernourished in 2012. And worst, children are the most visible victims of undernutrition, which is the underlying cause of diarrhea, malaria, measles, and pneumonia. Undernutrition accounts for half of the deaths in children below the age of five years. According to UNICEF, India houses one–third of the Stunted/Wasted (termed malnourished) children of the world and 46 percent of the children below the age of three are too small for their age and 47 are under weight. Undernutrition, from conception to the age of two years, can cause an irreversible impact on the child’s physical and mental development and has long-term consequences for social and economic development.



Malnutrition is often confused by policy makers as simply a ‘lack of food’ problem. It is not. Rather, it is a complex multidimensional and intergenerational problem and needs a multisectoral as well as direct and specific interventions. In recent times, as these issues have been worrying global policy makers, there are new indices, different from the popular Global Hunger Index released annually since 2006 that are being developed to illustrate the complexity of hunger and malnutrition. At the outset, it must be mentioned that these indices, cannot capture important cultural and political dimensions that prevail at national and sub-national level but are merely tools to highlight the problem.


Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI), launched in April 2013 for 2012 compares performance of 45 developing countries using 22 indicators of political commitment to reduce hunger and undernutrition. It looks at government action in terms of policies and programs, legal frameworks and public expenditures. HANCI is also computed separately for hunger reduction commitment (HRCI, based on ten indicators) and nutrition commitment (NCI, 12 indicators). HANCI takes into consideration a variety of indicators that address only hunger, only nutrition and then both. It takes into consideration women’s empowerment, social protection, food and agriculture, and health and nutrition environment. HANCI compares relative performance of countries and also provides raw indicators for individual countries. Though it is based on secondary data, primary research is employed to deepen analysis as it has been developed and shared with practioners in key countries. Overall, on HANCI, India is ranked 29th (2 ranks above its per capita GDP rank) while Brazil (4th), China (22nd) and South Africa (23rd). According to HANCI, there is low commitment by the government in India towards addressing the problem of stunting in children below 5 years of age.


A year earlier, Economist Intelligence Unit created the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) in 2012 to deepen the dialogue on food insecurity and measure the associated risks. The 2013 index is comprised of 27 indicators and applied to 107 countries. The indicators can be broadly classified into three categories – affordability, availability, and quality and safety.  In this index, an important contributory factor is quality and safety which takes into account availability of nutrients, micronutrients, vitamin A, iron, protein quality, potable water, and national nutritional strategy. India ranks 70th while Brazil (29), South Africa (39), Russia (40) and China (42) are ahead of us as they are in per capita GDP.


In case of both indices, two main factors that are substantiated are lack of sanitation, and inadequate nutrition. Hygenic means of personal sanitation, end of open defecation and clean drinking water would help in child survival. Studies have also shown that level of mother’s education and dietary diversification also positively impact balanced nourishment of the child. On nutrition, it needs to be debated whether India distribute vitamin A and iron supplements or adopt biofortification of crops with essential micronutrients at the sowing stage, as researched and implemented in some countries, including India, under HarvestPlus initiative?


On various indicators, developed by experts, it is consistently observed that India needs to focus attention and public expenditure on public education, sanitation, potable water and dietary intake of its citizens. Therefore, it would be essential to have a focused public health and nutritional policy with a concerted public campaign that would help in successfully achieving positive nutritional outcomes.

A version of this article appeared in the Financial Express of August 14, 2013 under the banner, “Tackling The Under-nutrition Challenge: India Needs a Focused Health and Nutritional Policy,

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