The nutrition crisis

Much concern has rightly been expressed about India’s rank on the Global Hunger Index, which was released this week as part of an annual exercise by two well-known international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). India was ranked 102 out of 117 countries, indicating that only 15 countries covered did worse than India in terms of the spread and intensity of hunger. Broadly, it has been noted that India was ranked 95th in 2010, so it appears to have slipped down the ladder. The index is composed of several indicators, including child wasting (the proportion of children who are too underweight for their height), child stunting (the proportion who appear too short for their age), child mortality, and undernourishment. It is possible that overall ranks on such indices are sensitive to minor changes in the weighting or methodology. But even the individual trends for the index’s components make for disturbing reading. Those on wasting in particular are disturbing: The report says the numbers rose from 16.5 per cent of children prior to 2012 to over 20 per cent in the years since 2014. What is worth noting in particular here is that these numbers are broadly in line with other indicators of wasting from sources such as the National Family Health Survey. And the UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) report on the State of the World’s Children, released this week, had almost identical concerns, arguing that 35 per cent of Indian children suffer from stunting, 17 per cent from wasting, and 33 per cent are underweight. That India is performing exceptionally badly is clear from the fact that all its neighbours are doing better than it on the Hunger Index. 

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once called malnutrition a “national shame” but it is unfortunate that, in spite of successive governments’ efforts in multiple directions to address this issue, sufficient progress has not been made. Part of the reason for poor nutrition may have been problems related to sanitation, such as are being targeted by the Swachh Bharat Mission. But the report points out that open defecation is still being practised with unfortunate effects for nutrition. But even basic diet issues have not yet been sorted out, in spite of more than two decades of consistent economic growth. The Hunger Report says that over 90 per cent of children between six months and two years are not fed a “minimally acceptable diet”. The UNICEF report says 40 per cent of children are anaemic, and only 40 per cent of children, teenagers, or mothers consume dairy products at least once a week. This comes at a time when milk production has grown 6 per cent annually, and the most recent animal census shows an increase in the number of milk-providing cows. 

The Indian state must go back to the basics, and address the question of food distribution. The existing public distribution system, which has become more than anything else a form of support for farmers in certain areas who wish to grow wheat and rice, must be reformed. It is a distribution system, not merely a procurement system. The focus must now be on ensuring that vulnerable Indians, particularly children, get access to a nutritious and balanced diet. There is no point having granaries overflowing with procured wheat and rice if children in UP schools are receiving just haldi and rice for their mid-day meal. Ensuring the distribution of hot cooked food, of vegetables and proteins, in mid-day meal would be a good starting point to address the hunger issue.

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