Hungry for nutrition

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020, released last week, has ranked India at a dismal 94 among 107 countries, putting it in the “serious” category, below all its neighbours barring Afghanistan. This is regardless of the fact that India is providing highly subsidised foodgrains to about two-thirds of its population under the National Food Security Act and is running several other poverty-alleviation and food-aid programmes unmatched by any other country. The most notable among the initiatives aimed at directly supplementing food intake are the mid-day meal scheme for school children and the Poshan Abhiyaan (nutrition campaign) for children and mothers. Moreover, there are no supply constraints with the country’s foodgrain output outstripping the effective demand year after year.

Why then such a poor ranking on the GHI? The answer can be traced in the fine print of the GHI itself. The real problem is not the food; it is nutrition. While the country has overcome the menace of hunger (read starvation), it has failed to ensure wholesome nourishment, which is the key to good health and the physical growth of children. Undernourishment (below-par nutrition) and malnourishment (imbalanced nutrient intake) are still rampant. The GHI rankings are based on four parameters, all of which are related to the wholesomeness of nutrition rather than just total food ingestion. These are: Undernourishment, wasting (low body weight), stunting (inadequate height), and mortality among children under five. India’s food-related schemes, on the other hand, are largely cereals-centred, disregarding the need for a balanced diet. No doubt, tangible improvement has occurred on the nutrition front in the past two decades, which has duly been captured in the GHI as well.

But this is not sufficient to make a material difference. The proportion of malnourished kids still remains worryingly high, particularly in some populous states having a high poverty ratio, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and a few others. This pulls down the country’s overall GHI score. The rate of stunting and wasting among under-five kids, reckoned at 37.4 per cent and 17.3 per cent, respectively, is also unacceptably high. The overall infant mortality rate has, no doubt, slid to 3.7 per cent, marginally lower than South Asia’s average of 4.1 per cent, but the incidence of deaths due to premature deliveries and low birth weight has risen. Notably, the GHI 2020 does not capture the impact of the pandemic, though the economic contraction, job losses, and massive reverse migration are bound to have exacerbated malnutrition. Sufficient anecdotal evidence is available to indicate that millions of people could not get two proper meals a day for a considerable period during the lockdown. Its effect on children, especially on their physical and mental development, would be reflected in the subsequent editions of the GHI.

The conclusions of this year’s GHI are grave enough to underscore the need for revamping the country’s food security-related programmes. They should not serve merely as outlets for surplus cereals but should also aim at eliminating malnutrition and improving the health of children, and pregnant and lactating mothers. The need, therefore, is to use these schemes to provide wholesome diets containing adequate amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. Items like pulses, eggs, milk, millets, and nutrient-doped processed foods are among the obvious choices. With business as usual, the goal of zero-hunger by 2030 would remain elusive.


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