Every night, one out of seven people on the planet go to bed hungry. As the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the poverty and hunger crisis, the situation in India looks particularly grim. In the Global Hunger Index released last week, India slipped seven places to a rank of 101 from 94 in just year.

The index gives a score on a 100 point scale, where 0 indicates no hunger and 100 shows an “extremely alarming” situation. With a score of 27.5, the level of hunger in India is “serious”.

The index uses four major parameters for calculating the global score. These are undernourishment, child wasting (children under five who have low weight for their height), child stunting (children under five with low height for their age) and child mortality (the rate of mortality for children under five).

The trend of these indicators for India over the years is seen in the chart below.

Source: Global Hunger Index

India has been ranked highest in child wasting among all 116 countries, reflecting acute undernutrition among children under the age of five. The report estimates an increase in child wasting rising from 15.1% in 2010-2014 to 17.3% in 2016- 2020.

Child stunting has been categorised as very high at 34.7%. Meanwhile, the child mortality rate has decreased in India from 5.2% in 2012 to 3.4% in 2021.

Source: Global Hunger Index

India’s position is now behind its neighbouring countries – Pakistan (92), Bangladesh (76) and Nepal (76).

In 2016, the Global Hunger Index reported Pakistan with a 32.1 score, which was higher than India’s score of 28.8. Pakistan was in fact the only neighbouring country that India was ahead of.

However, Pakistan has now moved nine ranks above India with its current score of 24.7. On plotting scores from the last four reports for India and its neighbours, it can be inferred that there has been a flatter decrease in India’s score than Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2012-’21.

Source: Global Hunger Index

What does this mean for India?

Growing levels of food insecurity have pernicious long-term effects on health outcomes of children in India. The United Nations World Food Programme states that malnourishment has an intergenerational impact. Mothers who are undernourished are more likely to give birth to children who are stunted or underweight.

Not just this, adequate nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life is a crucial window for the child’s health determining their entire lifespan. So, when access to a minimum adequate diet is not met, it has a disproportionate immediate effect on the nutrition of the most vulnerable.

Over the last 20 years, foodgrain production in India has risen from 198 million tonnes to 269 million tonnes. Ideally, this should have ensured that nobody went without access to food. Furthermore, the objective of the National Food Security Act of 2013 has been to provide food and nutrition security to two-third of the country at subsidised rates. It covers 75% of the rural population and 50% of the urban population under its Targeted Public Distribution System.

Then why is it that India still struggles to battle hunger?

The conventional understanding of starvation has been linked to the lack of food production or disruption in food distribution systems. Amartya Sen in Poverty and Famines attributes starvation to many other variables rather than just a decline in availability of food. He uses the failure of exchange entitlements to study famines. We can apply this theory to explain the hunger crisis in India.

Sen argues that every individual is thought of as being entitled to all possible combinations of goods and services that are accessible. One’s entitlement is an alternative bundle that any individual is free to choose from.

This entitlement can change due to many factors such as fluctuations in market prices, implementation of new ration laws, or changes in distribution systems. Many factors could contribute to this and we see that implementation of government policies also causes such entitlement failures.

One, the number of poor with incomes less than $2 per day has more than doubled in the last one year. The World Bank estimates that this number has gone up by 75 million owing to the pandemic induced recession. Naturally, the poor have stopped consuming the more expensive food, which is relatively richer in nutrients. This is likely to further exacerbate the undernutrition crisis in India. The abundance of food in the market is not sufficient to eradicate hunger unless people have the required purchasing power.

Second, the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research suggests that only 44% of the total allocated funds to the Integrated Child Development Services, whose mandate includes providing nutritional meals to children under six, were utilised in 2018-’19.

Furthermore, out of the total funds allocated for the Mid Day Meal Scheme for children in 2018-’19, only 14 states in India utilised the funds entirely. Based on the findings of the economist, Jean Dréze, this issue takes another turn. His estimates, which take inflation into account, show that the allocation of the Mid Day Meal Scheme has reduced by a staggering 32.3% between 2014 and 2021.

The Public Distribution System has proven to be a lifeline for millions of people since the lockdown in 2020 but there are concerns that are still prevalent regarding its national coverage. As per the National Food Security Act, 67% of the total population should be included in the Public Distribution System.

When we apply this to the population today, at least 90 crore people should be covered. The reality, however, is that only 80 crore people are included, which is just 59% of the total population in India. The data also suggests that 5.1 crore people are getting limited coverage and 40 crore people are left out entirely from the Public Distribution System.

Food insecurity remains an alarming issue due to such entitlement failures in India. While the government has rejected the findings of the Global Hunger Index as “unscientific”, we cannot ignore the dismal ground realities.

Ananya Sharma is a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University.