Indexing Humanity, Indian Style


It all happened around the same time. The day the Sensex crossed 19,000, India clocked in 94th in the Global Hunger Index–behind Ethiopia. Both stories did make it to the front page (in one daily at least). But, of course, the GHI ranking was mostly buried inside or not carried at all that day. The joy over the stunning rise of the media’s most loved index held on for a bit the next day. The same day, India clocked in as the leading nation in the number of women dying in childbirth. In this list, the second, third and fourth worst countries put together just about matched India’s 117,000 deaths of women in childbirth. This story appeared in single column just beneath the Sensex surge.

Next came the fall of several hundred points in the Sensex. That is, barely a couple of days later. It took minutes for the top guns to swing into action. Fingers were in every dyke. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram lost no time in reassuring worried investors via the media. Other top officials were all over television, doing the same. “FM soothes the Market’s nerves” ran the ticker. The barrage–both media and official–kept up through the day. The panels of experts convened to celebrate the 19K summit were reconvened to explain why they’d tripped off the cliff. They then droned on about the merits of P-Notes, regulation and the future. What stood out, of course, was the swiftness of both government and media response to each twitch in the index.

No Minister came forward to calm the nation when India hit the 94th rank in the Global Hunger Index. That’s out of 118 countries. The daily, DNA, though, did capture the essence of the story with its report: “Ethiopians manage hunger better than us.” For indeed, they do these days. At least by the measure of the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index. Draw the baseline anywhere in the 1990s, and you’ll find Ethiopia worked better at reducing hunger than we did. Pakistan ranks ahead of us, too, at 88. China logs in at 47. All our South Asian neighbours do better than us on this index, except Bangladesh. And who knows when it will overtake us? None of the countries boasts an economy growing at 9 per cent a year.

You’d think it was an issue worth some attention. But it was hard to find panels debating this on television, or any editorials in the newspapers doing the same. No Ministers or top babus soothed the nerves of the hungry. No experts with furrowed brows warned that the trends could continue, even worsen.

The GHI is by no means the only measure of what’s happening. The United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organisation put it simply in 2006. Its State of Food Insecurity in the World report confirmed yet again that we have the largest number of undernourished people in the world. The 2004 edition of the report had shown that India had added more people to the “newly hungry” in the planet than the rest of the world together. There, too, nations much worse off had done far better. Between the years 1995-97 and 2000-02, hunger grew in India at a time when it fell in Ethiopia.

There was also another link begging to be made. It’s not just between the Sensex and hunger stories. Let’s revert to the latest maternal mortality figures released by the WHO and others. Some 536,000 women died in childbirth in 2005. Of these, every fifth one of them, at least, was an Indian. That is, 117,000 of them. A total that could only be matched by Nigeria, Afghanistan and Congo together. Almost 99 per cent of all these deaths worldwide occurred in developing countries. Much of this, again, is amongst the poorer sections of the population.

If we were to look at specific groups or communities, this would be even clearer. Let alone on the hunger index, India’s rank in the U.N.’s Human Development Index is anyway dismal. There, at 126, we are below Bolivia, Guatemala and Gabon. Yet even that rank does not tell the full story. If we were to isolate the rich and the better off as a group, they might enter the top 10 nations. Efforts last year to look at adivasis [The roughly 70 million people belonging to “Scheduled Tribes” in India, Eds] as a group led pretty much in the reverse direction. One study found that if we were to derive the HDI for our tribes only, they would rank in the worst off 25 nations of the world.

That’s quite easy to believe. Canada has always been among the top 10 nations of the world in HDI rankings. In fact, it occupied the top slot for some years. Yet, a survey of its native or indigenous people towards the end of the last decade placed them at rank 63. That is, all those natives living on “reservations.” Across the world, tribal people mostly have a poor HDI profile.

And so it is in India, too, where they are pretty much at the bottom. The study that found their HDI to rank amongst the bottom 25 nations of the world, also found things to be worse by the region. The tribes of Orissa, it reports, fall below even the low end of the HDI of sub-Saharan African nations. This is by no means the only study to tell us how India’s tribes are doing. There are tons of official data to show us that in great detail. But there’s no rush to debate their survival in expert panels. They mostly get covered when they resist displacement, often with loss of life. They make up just eight per cent of the population, but account for over 45 per cent of those losing their lands to projects.

The furore now on the import of wheat is welcome. At least the media have begun to look at the issue. But surely, it is also worth discussing how we came to import wheat in the first place. And how a nation with so many in hunger ended up exporting millions of tonnes of grain this decade. That too, at prices lower than those we offer to millions of poor people in this country.

No matter how the Sensex is doing, the misery index for the poor scales new heights in one sector after another. Health costs still mount. They push people into debt even faster than before. A study done for the WHO in six Indian States found that 16 per cent of households it looked at were pushed below the poverty line by heavy medical costs. Nearly 10,000 families from lower income groups were covered by the survey for the years 2002-05. Some 12 per cent had to sell their assets to meet health expenses. Over 43 per cent had to resort to loans for the same reasons.

Our answer to this has been: more of the same. More privatization. Less and less of a public health system. In Mumbai, extortion by hospitals has become so frequent as to actually find mention in the media. But journalists do not get to make the link between the gutting of public services and the public’s misery. Much less can they track this in terms of private profiteering. That would go against the publication or channel’s stand of privatization as a cure for all ills.

More than once this year, the Bombay High Court has warned hospitals against the cruel practice of holding back the body of a patient–demanding hundreds of thousands of rupees from the family before returning it. It still happens. Now even at government hospitals leased out to private managements. So a low income family is suddenly told it owes the hospital a huge sum of money, and that the body of its five-year-old girl will be released only when that sum is paid. A fine example of public-private partnership as it works today.

In fact, it would be good to devise a health index spanning the reform years. One that looks at how both rich and poor have done health-wise. How many years of life, for instance, are taken away from you by ill-health if you are one of India’s less well off citizens? In the world of the media, though, only one index matters: the Sensex. Watching it has spawned a whole little industry in itself. The numbers who pronounce on and debate it (in the media, anyway) are impressive. The oracles reading equity’s entrails for omens. Maybe we need a media relevance index. An MRI scan of mass-produced mediocrity.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at:


P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org