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Global poverty, hunger: When CPI-M wanted us to believe there was no improvement!

By Rajiv Shah 
In a previous blog I had said that India’s poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) suggests failure of percolation theory of economist Arvind Panagariya, professor at the Columbia University, who served in the Niti Aayog after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 but resigned reportedly because of high bureaucratic interference. I am no economist, yet the fact is, the percolation theory has been put to test time again across the world. 
While there is little doubt that percolation theory – which suggests higher GDP would automatically lead to reduced poverty – has been disputed by many an economist, especially those on the left-of-the-centre, it has also been questioned by top international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, not once but several times over.
But there has been yet another extreme which I had noticed way back in 1970s as a student – especially some die-hard “Marxists” of the CPI-M type. I don’t know what CPI-M thinks of it today, but during those good old days, when I used to be part of the Students Federation of India (CPI-M student wing), we were assiduously made to believe this: that while the rich had gone richer, the poor too had gone poorer.
We were taught about this in “Marxist” study circles, which were taken by those whom we considered (naively, goes without saying) top theoreticians about to revolutionise India – Ved Gupta, Kumaresh Chakravartty, Rajendra Prasad, Sunit Chopra, to name just a few. While figures didn’t support what they said (or made us believe), it was only after left SFI that my perception changed. I left SFI because it got split, as one section decided to support the then Jana Sangh’s students wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in a Delhi University election.
It was only thereafter did I realise that the theory floated by CPI-M – that the “poorer had become poorer” – was wrong. I recall attending a CPI students’ wing All-India Students Federation (AISF) study circle, held at Firoz Chandra’s residence in Nizamuddin in Delhi. Studying in Delhi School of Economics, where I would meet him, Firoz, son of Romesh Chandra (the international face of CPI – he headed the now collapsed Soviet-sponsored World Peace Council), had invited had me there.
The study circle was taken by Mohit Sen, a CPI leader who later left the party. He argued out, with the support of figures, that while the rich had gone indeed richer in India, the poor too hadn’t become poorer either. Levels of hunger had gone down, he said. In fact, he said, economic growth had led to decrease in poverty levels, though the pace of this reduction was “too slow”.
Indeed, the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI) data on India also suggest the same thing: while India ranks 94th among 107 nations in GHI – poorer than all Indian neighbours, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh, not to talk of China – the GHI report also talks of “declines in recent years” in child mortality, even though it says, the decline is “still unacceptably high”.
To quote from the report, “The mortality rate of children under age five in South Asia as of 2018 was 4.1 percent, compared with 9.2 percent in 2000. India – the region’s most populous country – experienced a decline in under-five mortality in this period, driven largely by decreases in deaths from birth asphyxia or trauma, neonatal infections, pneumonia, and diarrhea.”
Scanning through the report, I found that the hunger index of India was 38.9 (on a scale of 100) in the year 2000, hunger index went down to 37.5 in 2006; it went down further to 29.3 in 2012; and now, in 2020 (the report does not assess Covid impact) it is 27.2. No doubt, the improvement over the last eight years is pretty slow, yet the fact is, there was considerable improvement between 2000 and 2012 – of these years examined, UPA ruled India for eight years.

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