Argumentative Indians are at it again! After sparring over the poverty line and the actual number of poor, India's renowned economists have fired up a fresh debate over the extent of malnutrition. In the earlier debate, the Planning Commission ‘reduced' poverty on paper disregarding NSSO and official committees, including the NCEUS, which determined that 77% Indians survived on less than Rs 20 a day. Columbia university economist Arvind Panagariya has come up with an equally ingenious way to clear out the nation's biggest shame. (See links below for full reports and earlier im4change alerts on hunger and malnutrition).

The debate is likely to only grow since Panagariya and his co-author economist Jagdish Bhagwati launch a similar attack on adult hunger numbers in India in their latest book.

Any debate on hunger in India and the need for food security legislation is routinely prefaced with two stark statistics: 43% of its children under 5 years are underweight and 48% stunted.(Qualifier: these are numbers from 2005-6 NFHS data, and the Indian government has produced no national estimates since). Commentators argue that these numbers might be on the decline, but the progress is far too slow for a country experiencing sustained economic growth.

Panagariya argued in his many interviews while promoting his book that the numbers grossly exaggerate the problem. This is because the height and weight for Indian children are measured with reference to 2006 norms set by the WHO, and then attribute any differences to a lack of nutrition but do not take into account genetic differences. He argues that it is implausible that compared to sub-Saharan African countries, India should have higher child malnutrition rates, but perform better on counts of infant, child and maternal mortality, life expectancy and even per capita incomes. Further measured against WHO norms, NFHS-3 data showed that even elite Indian children show a 15% incidence of stunting, suggesting that the norms may be a flawed tool.

Panagariya's arguments have been countered by others including better-known economist Amartya Sen who saw that the genetic differences theory has been progressively discredited in academic research and that he misreads the differences between Indian and African data.

Those outraged by the new ‘finding' include Dipankar Basu and Amit Basole of ‘Sanhati' an organisation dedicated to fighting neo-liberalism. Basu and Basole see many conceptual mistakes in the argument: "Height-for-age and weight-for-age are measures of under-nourishment of children, i.e., inadequate intake of energy and protein. LEB, IMR and U5MR, on the other hand, are broader measures of well being of a population which are impacted not only by nutrition but also by other factors like rates of immunization against common infections, access to institutional health care services (for instance, for childbirth), levels of sanitation and hygiene, prevalence of killer diseases like AIDS, and levels of socio-economic conflict and violence. Thus, in a comparison between two countries, it is perfectly possible for one country to have higher (or similar) levels of nutrition for its children but lower levels of LEB, IMR, or U5MR than the other country due to the effect of factors other than nutrition that impacts LEB, IMR or U5MR." (See Sanhati link below).

In another point by point rebuttal Stuart Gillespie, CEO of Transform Nutrition says Pangariya exaggerates the difference between India and Africa and that there is no genetic reason for higher rates of stunting among children anywhere (check the link below). Transform Nutrition works with policy makers, civil society and business leaders to address malnutrition through research and action.

Beyond a point though, the hair-splitting over numbers and expert-speak seem to distract and detract from the inhumane experience that individual Indians routinely endure in their attempt to secure even minimum food for themselves. In her ethnographic study of UP's Musahar community, Shilp Shikha Singh recently describes how the families she interacted with made sense of, and coped with, the lack of food by not describing it to themselves and others as bhookh (hunger) but upvaas or fasting.


The Myth of Child Malnutrition in India-Arvind Panagariya, Columbia University, September 2012 Conference, Papar 8,

When myth is reality-Stuart Gillespie, Transform Nutrition, January, 2013,

Is Child Malnutrition Overstated in India? A Reponse to Arvind Panagariya--By Deepankar Basu and Amit Basole, December 30, 2012,

A nutritional crisis in India, Live Mint, 14 May, 2013,

Is malnutrition in India a myth? -Pramit Bhattacharya, Live Mint, 16 May, 2013,

Arvind Panagariya, a professor of Indian economics at Columbia University interviewed by Ullekh NP, The Economic Times, 17 May, 2013,

Stuck record: Why Amartya Sen is wrong on food security again -R Jagannathan,, 7 May, 2013,

Food Security Bill: Freedom from hunger?, NDTV, 19 May, 2013

Growth vs Development: Nobel winner Amartya Sen discusses way ahead for India with NDTV, NDTV, 4 May, 2013

Politics stalling Food Security Bill: Amartya Sen to NDTV, NDTV, 7 May, 2013

Who moved my poverty report? (Please save your copy fast),

Intervention, Identity and Marginality: An Ethnographic Account of the Musahars-Shilp Shikha Singh, Economic and Political Weekly, May 18, 2013, Vol xlvIiI, No. 20,

Child's World Miserable: Highest under-5 Mortality,

Save the Children from Hunger and Malnutrition,

India accounts for 22 percent of Global Maternal Deaths,

Richer States, Poorer Performance, in reducing Malnutrition,

Climate Change will worsen child malnutrition,


Important reports


NSS 66th Round Report titled: Perceived Adequacy of Food Consumption in Indian Households (February, 2013) July 2009-June 2010, MoSPI, GoI,

NSS 66th Round Report titled: Public Distribution System and Other Sources of Household Consumption (July 2009-June 2010), MoSPI

UNICEF report: Improving Child Nutrition: The achievable imperative for global progress (April, 2013),

Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Performance Audit of Storage Management and Movement of Food Grains in Food Corporation of India, Report no.-7 of 2013-Union Government (Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution),

Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Performance Audit of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme, CAG Report no. 22 of 2012-13-Union Government (Ministry of Women and Child Development),

2012 Global Hunger Index - The Challenge of Hunger: Ensuring Sustainable Food Security under Land, Water, and Energy Stresses, produced by IFPRI, Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe,

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