Insights into Editorial: The malaise of malnutrition
A new report, ‘Food and Nutrition Security Analysis, India, 2019’, authored by the Government of India and the United Nations World Food Programme, paints a picture of hunger and malnutrition amongst children in large pockets of India. This punctures the image of a nation marching towards prosperity.
According to UNICEF, 38% of children younger than five years of age in India are stunted, a manifestation of chronic undernutrition.
Stunting and other forms of under-nutrition are thought to be responsible for nearly half of all child deaths globally.
Malnutrition in India also persists because of the age-old patterns of social and economic exclusion.
Over 40% of children from Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes are stunted. Close to 40% of children from the Other Backward Classes are stunted.
The cascading tendency of a transmission of poverty from mother to children continues, which is proof enough that the government’s efforts have had only peripheral impact.
Food and Nutrition Security Analysis, India, 2019:
According to the report, malnutrition amongst children in India is projected to remain high, despite all the progress made in food security.
It raises moral and ethical questions about the nature of a state and society that, after 70 years of independence, still condemns hundreds of millions of its poorest and vulnerable citizens to lives of hunger and desperation.
Some progress has been made in reducing the extent of malnutrition:
Chronic malnutrition decreased from 48% percent in 2005-06 to 38.4% in 2015-16.
The percentage of underweight children decreased from 42.5% to 35.7% over the same period.
Anaemia in young children decreased from 69.5% to 58.5% during this period.
However, many studies over the last five years have exposed the failure of the Indian state to ensure that its most vulnerable citizens are provided adequate nutrition in their early years.
The problem is access to food:
As Amartya Sen noted, famines are caused not by shortages of food, but by inadequate access to food.
And for the poor and marginalised, access to food is impeded by social, administrative and economic barriers.
In the case of children and their mothers, this could be anything from non-functioning governments at the State, district and local levels to entrenched social attitudes that see the poor and marginalised as less than equal citizens who are meant to be an underclass and are undeserving of government efforts to provide them food and lift them out of poverty.
A lot of attention has focussed on the government’s aim of turning India into a $5 trillion economy in the next five years.
But these declarations only serve to obscure a larger reality. There is a large section of society, the poorest two-fifths of the country’s population, that is still largely untouched by the modern economy which the rest of the country inhabits.
As one part of the country lives in a 21st century economy, ordering exotic cuisines over apps, another part struggles with the most ancient of realities: finding enough to eat to tide them over till the next day.
Recommendations to solve mal-nutrition by Food and Nutrition Security Analysis, India, 2019:
Recommendations are grouped by the three pillars of food security: availability, access and utilisation.
- Farmers should be encouraged and incentivised for agricultural diversification.
- Innovative and low-cost farming technologies, increase in the irrigation coverage and enhancing knowledge of farmers in areas such as appropriate use of land and water should be encouraged to improve the sustainability of food productivity.
- The government should improve policy support for improving agricultural produce of traditional crops in the country.
- The targeting efficiency of all food safety nets should be improved, especially that of the Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS), to ensure that the poorest are included.
- In addition, fortification of government-approved commodities within the social safety net programmes can improve nutritional outcomes.
- Child feeding practices should be improved in the country, especially at the critical ages when solid foods are introduced to the diet.
- Fortification, diversification and supplementation may be used as simultaneous strategies to address micro and macronutrient deficiencies.
Storage capacity should be improved to prevent post-harvest losses.
There is a need for more robust measures that can take cognizance of all aspects of SDG 2.
All the major welfare programmes need to be gender sensitive.
The inherited dehumanising poverty explains the persistence of malnutrition on a large scale.
Children born in impecunious circumstances suffer the most from malnutrition. It is all the more reason for governments to intervene to provide adequate nutrition to all.
Funds for food to all yield great returns and help in unlocking the full potential of citizens besides strengthening the workforce.
Malnutrition is a complex and multi-dimensional issue.
It is primarily caused by several factors, including poverty, inadequate food consumption, inequitable food distribution, improper maternal, infant and child feeding, and care practices, inequity and gender imbalances, poor sanitary and environmental conditions, and restricted access to quality health, education and social care services.
It once again forces us to ask why despite rapid economic growth, declining levels of poverty, enough food to export, and a multiplicity of government programmes, malnutrition amongst the poorest remains high.
Governance can be termed ‘good’ only when it banishes hunger and starvation. The poor must also be valued like the rest of the population since attaching less value to their lives is one unstated reason why their nutritional needs are not taken care of as they should be.