The challenges in addressing hunger and poverty cannot be effectively met through general schemes devised solely at the central or state levels.
India’s poor ranking in the recently published Global Hunger Index brought the focus back to discussions around poverty, hunger, and economic progress, among others.
The Government of India and some experts contest the methodologies used in the index; however, it is a stark reminder of the pressing need to address hunger and poverty in a rapidly growing economy like India. A visit to rural areas or even major cities underscores the widespread prevalence of poverty and hunger. While the government’s claims of progress may be valid, it’s clear that more targeted and grassroots-level action is essential.
India’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) score in 2023 showed a reduction in its MPI value but it also noted that indicators like nutrition and education have more scope for improvement. This is affirmed by the NFHS-5 (2019-2021) report, where approximately 36 per cent of children under the age of five exhibit stunted growth, and 32.1 per cent of children are underweight.
In the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (2023), a more recent study conducted by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it was observed that stunting among children stood at 22.7 per cent, while 16.6 per cent of the total population faced challenges by related to undernourishment. Nevertheless, it is evident that India faces nutritional deficiencies, and needs to do better for improved outcomes.
Another sobering data reveals that a substantial portion of the population faces significant economic vulnerabilities. According to the World Bank, approximately 11.9 per cent of India’s population is living below the poverty line of $2.15 per day, and a staggering 60 per cent are managing on less than $3 a day. This places a large portion of the population in a vulnerable position, at risk of falling below the poverty line should any unforeseen events occur. Such a situation necessitates meticulously planned interventions aimed at preventing people slipping below the poverty line.
Government schemes are primarily centralised, with support from the state government and the involvement of local bodies like panchayats and municipalities. While the inclusion of anganwadis and the public distribution system (PDS) beneficiaries by local governments, as outlined in these schemes, is well-intentioned, it also prompts a broader question regarding the necessity for a Multilevel Governance and Performance Index (MGPI).
This index should enable a comprehensive evaluation and assessment of local governments’ (panchayats and municipalities) authority, their capacity to raise funds, their human resources and capabilities, and their utilisation and adoption of technology, among other factors, so as to improve governance. The challenges in addressing hunger and poverty cannot be effectively met through general schemes devised solely at the central or state levels.
Understanding the living ecosystem of targeted communities is crucial, as they face significant daily challenges. Factors like culture, habits, occupations, access to education, and healthcare, and local infrastructure development all play a pivotal role in identifying the root causes of these challenges. In a diverse country like ours, addressing these local issues requires a robust local government with administrative and economic powers. Despite the well-intentioned 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution, which aimed to establish such a governance structure, it remains largely unrealised.
The MGPI should encompass a comprehensive range of indicators at the local level, evaluating the authority, capabilities, and technological utilisation of local governments, reflecting on the resources and competitive advantages of the weaker areas to provide a clearer picture of where the core issues lie.
An index of such sort may consist of 250 to 300 indicators and may range from the availability of hospital beds to yield from the local farms. . This would also enrich our knowledge about the challenges associated with last-mile delivery in supply chain management, which play a crucial role in fighting poverty and hunger.
To provide a more contextual explanation, consider the states such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Jharkhand. The regions are home to a significant number of people in poverty and are susceptible to natural calamities such as frequent floods, disasters, earthquakes, and cyclones that result in heavy damage. Without disaster preparedness and resilience at the local level, these hazards not only exacerbate the struggles of the near-poor but also push them below the poverty line, perpetuating cycles of persistent and severe poverty.
In the aftermath of such disasters, affected families often resort to coping mechanisms that have detrimental long-term consequences. This involves cutting back on essential expenditures for food, healthcare, and education, further compounding the challenges they face. A strong decentralised governance aided by a comprehensive set of indicators can effectively help mitigate the impacts of disasters and result in substantial cost savings in the long run.
Another significant aspect in addressing hunger and poverty is the promotion of women’s labour force participation. Research has demonstrated that boosting female labour force participation in paid activities are nutrition-enhancing for the household. Promoting female employment through incentives, revisiting protective legislation to ensure a balanced approach, and actively supporting skill training programmes for women are all effective strategies that can significantly enhance household-level well-being. These measures can empower women, improve economic stability, and contribute to the overall prosperity of households.
However, to achieve these objectives, it is essential to raise awareness about women’s involvement in the workforce and bolster the ecosystem that facilitates their transition into employment. This entails ensuring access to quality education, improving transportation connectivity, and other vital components. Indexes such as MGPI can play a pivotal role in providing valuable insights about the local needs.
Expanding the range of datasets and their evaluation will further enhance the local government’s ability to identify areas requiring targeted interventions. Governments often utilise dashboards to monitor program implementation, but these dashboards do not always align with local settings. In this context, MGPI could serve as a valuable tool to bridge that gap and provide more relevant insights for effective program tracking. Overall, this would drive the development of a comprehensive action plan at the local level. This will sustain and improve our goals to eliminate poverty and hunger from society.
This article was first published in Deccan Herald.
(D Dhanuraj is Chairman, and Nissy Solomon is Honorary Trustee (Research & Programs), Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi)
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.