Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a jibe at India's perennially hostile neighbour Pakistan at his Kozhikode speech, just a few days ahead of the 'surgical attacks' conducted by the Indian army's special forces at LoC. The Prime Minister said India is ready for a war with Pakistan, but a war on poverty, unemployment and malnutrition. Modi's 'war cry' resonated well in Pakistani media, too. It seems we, Indians, are indeed at war with Pakistan on poverty and malnutrition.
As this Mint report notes, among Asian countries, India and Pakistan are at the bottom of the rankings in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report released by US-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
In the 2016 rankings of 118 countries, India is ranked 97 and Pakistan 107. All other Asian neighbours are doing relatively better -- China (29), Nepal (72), Myanmar (75), Sri Lanka (84) and Bangladesh (90), the report showed, adding India’s GHI score of 28.5 is worse than the developing country average score of 21.3.
Brazil and Argentina have a GHI score of less than 5 and are ranked the best among developing nations, while countries like Chad and Central African Republic come at the bottom with a score of 44.3 and 46.1, respectively, the report says.
GHI is a multidimensional statistical tool used to describe the state of countries' hunger situation. Updated once a year, it gauges the progress and failures in the global fight against hunger.
Take a look at the specifics. The IFPRI thinks we have a “serious” hunger problem with 15.2 percent of Indians undernourished and 38.7 percent of children under the age of five stunted on account of malnutrition.
One can always argue on the efficacy of such surveys in portraying the accurate picture with a decent amount of skepticism. But, facts are facts and the more you ignore it, a bigger joke you make out of yourself. The hunger index numbers indeed throw some serious questions on the course of ongoing government programmes to alleviate poverty and malnutrition in the country, and whether we have prioritised this problem the way it should be.
For a layman on the street, a logical question arises. With one in every 15 Indians facing near starvation and close to 40 percent below-the-age-of-five children stunted for want of minimum nutritious food, what sort of China-beating economic growth and India's emergence into world central stage are our politicians boasting about?
Yes, India has been struggling to cut down poverty. The level of poverty and malnutrition has come down over the past decade, but somewhere we are missing the sense of urgency when it comes to addressing people at the bottom of the pyramid.
The IFPRI report isn't a one-off.
Going by a United Nations annual report for 2014-15 released last year, India has the world’s highest number of hungry people in the world. Ironically, we have beaten China here too. India has 194.6 million hungry people compared with 133.8 million in China, of the total 795 million people in the world. In other words, one-fourth of the world’s hungry population is in India. What does being the citizens of the world’s fastest growing economy mean to them?
Jobless economic growth
When we talk about poverty and malnutrition, it is necessary to look at what education and job market are doing to elevate India's poor from the deadly grip of poverty. Since Independence, India has progressed remarkably in the field of basic education. Yet, how much of the primary school educated youth are able to get jobs in the country is unknown. Though the quality of higher education offered in our universities is still a matter of debate, India continues to be one of the biggest exporters of human talent across sectors to the developed world.
That takes us to the next problem — joblessness in our country and why we continue to see a period of high growth but less number of jobs being generated (mechanisation and efficiency cannot be the sole excuses). Specially for the poor, lack of employment opportunity is a big hurdle to overcome poverty.
For a larger section of people at the bottom of the pyramid, a 7.6 percent GDP growth is a mere number in newspaper reports considering the lack of employment opportunities. Even if one looks at the job data, the picture is disappointing. There has been no corresponding increase in the number of jobs in the economy to align with what the headline GDP numbers indicate.
Let's revisit briefly a recent Firstpost article, which highlighted the unemployment problem in the country.
According to data from the Labour Bureau, the country's unemployment rate has shot up to a 5-year high of 5 percent in 2015-16. This figure is significantly higher, at 8.7 percent, for women as compared to 4.3 percent for men. About 77 percent of Indian households do not have regular wage/salaried person.
India's unemployment rate was at 4.9 percent in 2013-14, 4.7 percent in 2012-13, 3.8 percent in 2011-12 and 9.3 percent in 2009-10. There was no report from the Labour Bureau for 2014-15. And the situation is not looking better going ahead.
A World Bank research has showed that automation threatens 69 percent of jobs in India. With the use of more technology, the pattern of the traditional economic path in developing countries could be fundamentally disrupted, the report noted.
That's not all.
The Asia-Pacific Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) this year gives a strong warning about the level of unemployment in the country. According to the report, between 1991 and 2013 India could provide employment only to less than half of the new entrants into the job market.
"The size of the working-age population increased by 300 million (during the period), while the number of employed people increased by only 140 million — the economy absorbed less than half the new entrants into the labour market. A wider gap in India than China suggests a more limited capacity to generate employment — a serious challenge given the continued expansion of the workforce in India over the next 35 years,” the report said.
The bottomline is this: It's perhaps time our politicians stopped weighing India's economic growth only in GDP percentage figures and go for a broader set of parameters that reflect the actual growth of the economy/real situation on the ground — something which depicts the level of poverty, unemployment and malnutrition rate, not just a measure crunching the domestic produce numbers.
Data contribution by Kishor Kadam