India’s officialdom rubbished the findings and called the GHI 2021 assessment of India as “shocking”
Is the world conspiring to make India look bad or are we too sensitive about the global gaze? In October last year, I wrote a column which pivoted around this question. The trigger was India’s rank on the Global Hunger Index 2021. India was troublingly perched at 101 among 116 countries in GHI 2021. India’s officialdom rubbished the findings and called the GHI 2021 assessment of India as “shocking” and “devoid of ground reality and facts and suffers from serious methodological issues”.
Cut to October 2022. I was in Europe earlier this month. My interactions were mostly with ordinary Europeans whose key concerns were Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the devastation it had caused and all the attendant consequences, the energy crisis ripping the fabric of European society, their soaring energy bills, and inflation.
I got back home mid-October to find a familiar furore. The Global Hunger Index 2022 was out. This time, India ranked 107 out of 121 surveyed countries. The Narendra Modi government has rubbished its findings vis a vis India. A scathing statement by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) on October 15 underlined India’s official position: “A consistent effort is yet again visible to taint India’s image as a nation that does not fulfil the food security and nutritional requirements of its population. Misinformation seems to be the hallmark of the annually released Global Hunger Index.” The PIB release said the index is “an erroneous measure of hunger and suffers from serious methodological issues”.
At this point, anyone who has been following the India story feels a sense of déjà vu. The argument that the world is out to defame India has been surfacing time and again. It surfaces every time an international survey or report or an organisation says something critical about India. In recent years, official India has rubbished several global indices which show India in an unflattering light on the grounds of methodology and bias against this country. It has also tended to ward off foreign criticism in general.
Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about an international conspiracy to tarnish the image of India’s tea. Addressing a gathering in Assam’s Dhekiajuli, a well-known tea plantation area, he said the condition of tea garden workers was always linked to the development of Assam. But documents have emerged to show that a conspiracy has been hatched outside the country to defame Indian tea, the Press Trust of India reported. The trigger was a report by international non-profit organisation Greenpeace alleging overuse of pesticides in India’s tea industry. The PM was apparently referring to this report in this speech, PTI noted.
Amid the ongoing furore over global rankings, one may be tempted to ask how this perceived bias against India syncs with India’s upgrades in international surveys such as the World Bank’s annual ranking of countries for their ease of doing business and the general euphoria that typically follows every time India is praised by an international agency.
More pertinently, why is a country of 1.4 billion people, which assumes the presidency of the G-20 for one year from December 1, 2022 to November 30, 2023, and which proudly showcases its status as the world’s fifth-largest economy, overtaking the United Kingdom, so prickly about global scrutiny and criticism?
The prickliness may be more pronounced now, but it is not entirely new, as Sumit Ganguly, a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, pointed out in his 2021 essay in Foreign Policy magazine.
“For decades, governments in India, regardless of political orientation, have been hypersensitive to foreign criticism of their domestic policy choices on a host of internal problems, including routine police brutality and the abuse of minorities. Touchiness has, in turn, become an element of the country’s political culture,” wrote Ganguly.
“The tendency toward defensiveness has really come to the forefront under the second Modi government, which came to office in April 2019,” he noted.
No one denies that India has made progress on many fronts. India’s impressive economic progress has led to the number of poor people in India declining by about 415 million between 2005-06 and 2019-21, as the recently-released Global Multidimensional Poverty Index noted.
But “despite tremendous gains, the ongoing task of ending poverty for the 228.9 million poor people in 2019/2021 is daunting -- especially as the number has nearly certainly risen since the data were collected. There were still 97 million poor children in India in 2019/21 -- more than the total number of poor people, children and adults combined, in any other country covered by the global MPI,” says the report.
That is the ground reality.
Tragically, the hyper-sensitiveness to any unflattering statements about India is blocking a necessary discussion on the most pressing challenges that this country is facing.
No institution, local or global, is above criticism. One can critique methodologies. But we also desperately need an honest and frank discussion in the public square on hunger, health, poverty and all the other inter-linked deprivations where non-official voices must be also represented.
In a country like India which has a dominantly young population, is a focus on children unscientific and irrational, as alleged by those trashing the GHI 2022?
Malnourished children and adolescents are at higher risk for impaired growth, low immunity, poor mental development, and mortality, states the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS), put together by the ministry of health and family welfare, Unicef and Population Council.
India’s nutrition and health experts have been repeatedly flagging the lack of dietary diversity and acute protein deficiency in the intake of our children and adults.
According to CNNS (2016-2018), which covered children between 0–19 years of age, overall, only nine per cent of children aged six to 23 months received iron-rich food.
The Narendra Modi government’s free foodgrain scheme to more than 800 million vulnerable families for the past 25 months has indeed helped stave off starvation, but it does not fully address malnutrition.
India is a nation of young people. They will shape the India story of the future.
Focusing on children is a must because problems stemming from undernutrition and poor health in the early years can potentially carry over into adulthood. Should we not emphasise the roadblocks which threaten to derail the future of India’s children and youth?
A rising nation in a globalised world attracts greater global scrutiny. We need to also accept that every critic, local or global, is not part of a conspiracy to defame India.