Some people would call it just a number, but it is not a particularly happy one. The latest edition of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) puts India at 102 in a list of 117 countries. That means we have fallen seven places, from 95 last year. Of course, how seriously we should take this indicator is unclear because it is hard to be certain of the quality of data on which the report is based. For instance, Yemen and Djibouti are among the countries that are higher on the list.

Yemen, for one, is in political meltdown, wracked by a decade-long civil conflict that has turned into a war of extermination. World Food Programme estimates say about 20 million Yemenis are “food-insecure”. That is 70 per cent of the population. With a civil war raging, food at a premium, and mass starvation a real possibility, it is scarcely credible that the administration would have the time or resources to update its figures comprehensively over last year. If it did, then the 13 per cent rise in food insecurity ought to be reflected somewhere. As for Djibouti, this tiny country on the Horn of Africa is among the world’s worst affected by climate change, devastated by rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns, as rising sea levels contaminate coastal aquifers with salt. How reliable granular data for a report like the hunger index in these circumstances can be is anyone’s guess.

The GHI score is not a simple calorie- and protein-consumption per capita index. Four indicators provide a composite picture. These are malnutrition, child wasting—children under five with low weight for height (acute under-nutrition); stunting, children under five with low height for age (chronic under-nutrition)—and child mortality, the mortality rate of children under five. The scale is a declining one, so the lower the numbers the better the condition of the child.

Detailed figures under these four heads would be more reliably found in countries with an orderly administrative mechanism like India and that may be the reason for its low place on the index. Nevertheless, it makes for disheartening reading when we recall that in 2000 India was 83rd on a list of 113 countries. On the other hand, there is some comfort in the fact that the numbers have declined, from 38.9 in 2005 to 32 in 2010, and from that to 30.3 between 2010 and 2019. But whatever the truth, this is a sobering wake-up call from the hype and propaganda about the new India that the government never ceases to boast that it is creating.

Given the situation, we face the prospect of dissipating the demographic dividend, a once-in-a-generation condition of declining fertility and mortality rates that helps free up economic resources for investment and rapid growth. Virtually every major economy that has emerged after World War II, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China reaped the benefits of this rare stroke of fortune, raising productivity and GDP rates dramatically.

The Indian version is expected to last until 2053 but with a child wasting rate rising from 16.5 per cent in 2008-12 to an “extremely high” 20.8 per cent in 2014-18, what can we expect for a future? According to the report, just 9.6 per cent of all children between six and 23 months get a “minimum acceptable diet”. We entered the 37-year dividend period in 2016 but every economic indicator has moved downwards or sideways since then. There is little chance of the grim GDP numbers of 5-6 per cent growth going up in the next few years as the government is grappling with a multi-faceted crisis characterised by rising unemployment, falling investment and demand that threatens to lay waste to vital sectors of industry such as automobiles, manufacturing and construction. There seem to be no easy solutions to these problems.

But GHI numbers are not about lost economic benefits or inability to keep abreast of the superpowers. They are a stark reminder that the Indian state has failed in its first duty, providing our children with a balanced diet that ensures their physical well-being. Cost can’t be a factor as governments have sunk lakhs of crores in a myriad failed ventures. In any case, this is not a freebie but an investment, the best kind. Children are the future, the ones who will make sure that their fathers’ dreams come true, for themselves and the larger society. It is a sad fact that no government since independence can claim to have achieved this, whether through indifference, neglect or incompetence. This, more than anything else, exposes the essential hollowness of their rhetoric; all sound, no sense or sincerity.