By Suresh Nair
India, though one of the fastest growing nations in the world, is also where every three stunted child out of ten in the world belong. It is a shocking fact that in India nearly 2 million children are born each year in our country and do not live beyond 5 years. The hunger and malnutrition level in India is at alarming levels compared to our neighbouring countries. As per the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s Global Hunger Index, child malnourishment cases in India are among the highest in the world. We have been ranked 63rd on the Global Hunger Index, which is based on three factors – child mortality rate, undernourishment and underweight children. Even as we brag about being the next superpower, it is ironical that 30% of the world’s malnourished children hail from our country.
It is a well known fact that nutrition is essential for human development and crucial to health and well being. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of at least 50% of deaths of children under the age of 5. Even if it does not lead to death, malnutrition – including micronutrient deficiencies – often leads to permanent damage, including impairment of physical growth and mental development. It has been found that child malnutrition in India is among the highest in the world, higher than sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. The reasons for malnutrition are many including poverty, inadequate food, inaccessibility and lack of knowledge of nutritious food, and improper infant and child feeding practices. The lack of proper intake of nutrients by a pregnant mother affects the infant who is born unhealthy and underweight. There is an urgent need to tackle this issue by ensuring that healthy food and nutrients are made accessible to pregnant women, so they in turn can produce healthy babies.
Equally, education inputs provided after the age of 6 do not achieve their full potential because children, in their formative years, has become stunted, mentally and/or physically. Although a lot of funds are generated for the cause of education, most of it is focused on children over 6 years old. Due to the lack of adequate funds and focus on this segment, UNICEF has recently placed India at No.1 position for having the highest (worst) under 5 mortality rate, and most number of physically stunted children due to malnutrition.
There are various schemes and programs launched by the Government to curb the increasing number of malnutrition cases in the country. Some of the initiatives, like the ICDS program and World Bank’s ISSNIP project, have yielded positive results, thereby benefiting a large section of the malnourished children. Balanced multi-sectoral initiatives have also helped provide nutrients to pregnant women, nursing mothers and children below the age of 5 years. Even with all this good stuff happening, the ground reality seems to be very different. There are alarm bells ringing when we read about mid day meals leading to deaths and sickness in children in places like Bihar, Maharashtra, etc.
We begin to question the actual impact of these schemes. India witnesses the birth of over 27 million children every year, of which more than 46 percent suffer from nutrient deficiency and thereby, end up being classified as malnourished. There is an immediate need to reduce this number by encouraging schemes which can cover both qualitative and quantitative requirements of the nutrients.
The government must pay special attention to the states which indicate a high percentage of malnourished children and should invest more on campaigns/schemes that can provide nutrition to these children. Poverty is a big challenge for the Indian government. With a huge chunk of people falling below the poverty line, reaching out to each and everyone is a gargantuan task.
Non-government organizations also play a major role in working towards eradicating malnourishment. There is a need for effective coordination and support from the government to fight malnourishment at the macro level. There are many NGOs in India who have taken up the cause of malnutrition. Campaigns such as Malnutrition Quit India, Information Education and Communication (IEC), and United Way of Bengaluru’s Born Learning program help create awareness about the issue and its effect on women and children belonging to underprivileged communities.
Malnourishment is a disease which has spread across the nation and needs to be cured on a priority basis. There is an immediate need for the state and central governments and the community to accept malnourishment as a threat to the Indian economy. The solution must entail a program which is aggressively rolled out with very strong measurements of changes in both education and physical and mental capabilities of the child while being exposed to the new nutrition program. Collaboratively, we must work towards providing a healthy life to every Indian child, failing which; the demographic dividend will end up becoming a demographic liability.
The author is the Executive Director of United Way of Bengaluru.