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The SOFI report 2020 in Indian context

The SOFI report and lockdown anxiety have renewed attention to what is also the world’s largest food insecure population

Data from the latest edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. World (SOFI) show that India retains the dubious distinction of being the country with the largest population of food insecure people.

  • Estimates presented in the report published by various United Nations organizations show that the prevalence of food insecurity increased by 3.8 percentage points in India between 2014 and 2019, the first term of Narendra Modi government. In 2019, 6.2 million more were food insecure than in 2014.

Authoritative indicators

  • The SOFI report, published annually, presents the most reliable assessment of hunger and food insecurity in the world.
  • Since 2017, SOFI has presented two key measures of food insecurity; the conventional measure called Prevalence of Undernourishment (PoU) and a new measure called Prevalence of Moderate and Severe Food Insecurity (PMSFI).
  • Both are globally accepted indicators of progress towards target 2.1 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end hunger and food insecurity.
  • While the PoU focuses on estimating the proportion of the population that is chronically calorie deficient, the PMSFI is a more comprehensive measure of lack of access to adequate and nutritious food.
  • PoU estimates are based on food balance sheets and national consumption surveys.
  • Since consumer surveys are rarely conducted in most countries, these estimates are often based on outdated data and are revised when better data becomes available.
  • In contrast, the PMSFI relies on annual surveys that collect information on experiences of food insecurity (such as food shortages, skipping meals and changes in dietary diversity due to lack of resources).
  • PMSFI uses the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), a gold standard for measuring food security developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), to estimate rates of globally comparable prevalence.
  • Due to the strong conceptual foundations of this methodology and the ease of data collection, the FIES and PMFSI have been widely adopted by countries around the world.
  • FAO mandates Gallup to include FIES questions in the Gallup®World Poll (FAO-GWP) survey conducted in more than 140 countries around the world.
  • Many countries have also started to conduct their own FIES surveys. Unlike most other countries, the government of India does not conduct official FIES surveys or accept estimates based on FAO-GWP surveys.
  • Although the FAO-GWP surveys are carried out in India, India is one of the few countries that does not allow the publication of estimates based on these surveys.
  • Therefore, as in recent years, PMSFI estimates for India are not published on SOFI.

National data

It is interesting to note, however, that these estimates can be derived for India from the information provided in the report. The report provides three-year average estimates of the number of food insecure people in South Asia as a whole and South Asia (excluding India).

  • By taking a difference between the two, the estimates for India can be obtained.
  • These estimates show that while 27.8% of the Indian population was moderately or severely food insecure in 2014-2016, the proportion increased to 31.6% in 2017-2019.
  • The number of food insecure people increased from Rs 42.65 million in 2014-16 to Rs 48.86 million in 2017-19.
  • India accounted for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity, the highest of any country, in 2017-2019.
  • It should also be noted that while the PMSFI increased in India by 3.7 percentage points during this period, it decreased by 0.5 percentage point in the rest of South Asia.
  • India has not released the latest National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) consumer expenditure survey data for 2017-2018.
  • As a result, conventional measures of poverty and food consumption have not been available in recent years.
  • The unavailability of data from this consumption survey also has implications for the FAO UDP estimates for India.
  • Due to the unavailability of regular consumption survey data in most countries, FAO uses data from Data by country; However, it is interesting to note that these estimates can be derived for India from the information provided in the report.
  • The report provides three-year average estimates of the number of people who are food insecure in South Asia as a whole and in South Asia (excluding India).
  • Taking a difference between the two, we can derive the estimates for India.
  • These estimates show that while 27.8% of India’s population was moderately or severely food insecure in 2014-2016, this proportion increased to 31.6% in 2017-2019.
  • The number of food insecure people increased from 42.65 crore in 2014-16 to 48.86 crore in 2017-19.
  • India accounted for 22% of the global burden of food insecurity, the highest of any country, in 2017-2019.
  • It should also be noted that while the PMSFI increased in India by 3.7 percentage points during this period, it decreased by 0.5 percentage points in the rest of South Asia.
  • India has not released the latest data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) consumer spending survey for 2017-18. As a result, conventional measures of poverty and food consumption have not been available in recent years.
  • The unavailability of data from this consumption survey also has implications for the FAO PoU estimates for India.
  • Due to the lack of regular availability of data from consumption surveys in most countries, FAO uses supply data on per capita food availability to measure changes in average per capita calorie intake.
  • While this approach is reasonable, it has become unsustainable for India due to a large and growing disparity between supply-side data and consumer survey data.
  • Not only does the supply data show a much higher level of per capita food availability than the amount of food that is caught as consumed in surveys, but even the direction of change between the two does not appear to be consistent.
  • While the per capita dietary energy supply in India increased by 3.8% between 2011-13 and 2015-17, consumption survey data made available thanks to a media leak showed that spending is average consumption ( covering food and other expenses) decreased by 3.7% between 2011-12 and 2017-18.
  • Overall, the government’s retention of consumer survey data has meant that SOFI continues to use outdated data for food intake variability, making PoU estimates for India unsustainable.
  • In light of this, the PMSFI estimates for India have become particularly valuable.

Causes of suffering

  • The significant increase in food insecurity, as shown by these data, is a clear manifestation of the general economic distress during this period marked by an increasingly serious agrarian crisis, declining investments in all sectors and opportunities reduced employment.
  • The latest PLFS data showed that unemployment rates in recent years have been higher than in the past four decades.
  • It is widely accepted that demonetization and the introduction of the goods and services tax were the two main causes of economic difficulties during this period.
  • The sudden imposition of a prolonged and unprecedented lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn renewed attention to the problems of hunger and food insecurity.
  • With a sudden loss of their livelihoods, a vast majority of India’s poor face increased food insecurity, hunger and famine.
  • The media have also reported several deaths from famine. In light of this, these PMSFI estimates provide an important baseline estimate of the situation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • It is critical that India conduct a national survey on food insecurity to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the food security of different segments of the population.
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