India: Malnutrition becomes ‘national shame’

In India, though there has been some improvement, the rate of child malnutrition is still unacceptably high.

According to a survey conducted in India, 42 per cent of children under five are underweight [GALLO/GETTY]

New Delhi, India – Geeta, a 27-year-old mother of three, living on the outskirts of the national capital region looks vacant at the queries of malnourishment. For her, gathering cereals for the two square meals of her family is a luxury. Her four-year-old daughter, the youngest of her children, looks too tiny for her age – about which Geeta seems blissfully unaware. Fighting hunger is their struggle; malnourishment is alien.

The cause and effect of millions of Geetas was highlighted by a recent report on India’s malnourished populations.

This was a well-known fact. Until about two decades ago, India ranked among the poorest countries of the world. The disparity is glaring now because India boasts of the fastest number of growing “dollar millionaires”.

A study that has just been released by the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, reveals that 42 per cent of Indian children are suffering from malnutrition, which manifests directly from abject poverty. This is probably the biggest problem that the largest democracy, and the second fastest growing economy in the world, faces today.

One of the important parameters of the burgeoning Indian economy is that it hosts the world’s largest youth population under 25. That growth story is facing the challenge of becoming stunted if the country does not address this issue on time. The Indian cabinet has taken the first step, by approving the Food Security Bill. But they have miles to go and millions of dollars to spend before they can ensure healthy future generations.

Report on malnourishment

The report, based on a survey conducted by the Naandi Foundation, has been made at the insistence of the Citizens’ Alliance against Malnutrition which comprises young parliamentarians, artists, directors, social activists and policymakers. The HUNGaMA (in Hindi, hungama is a “stir” or “ruckus”) Report registers shaming figures.

Forty-two per cent of children under five are underweight and 59 per cent have stunted growth.

The surveyors reached more than 73,000 households in 112 districts across nine states, wherein 74,020 mothers shared their stories and 109,093 children stepped onto weighing machines for the survey.

Children from households identifying as Muslim or belonging to “Backward Castes or Tribes” generally have worse nutrition.

In the districts in focus, fewer than 7.6 per cent of mothers had heard the word for “malnutrition” in their regional language.

When asked why they did not give their children more non-cereal foods, 93.7 per cent mothers said they did not do so because non-cereal foods were expensive.

The report highlights the linkages between education and health, sanitation and hygiene, drinking water and nutrition.

Food security bill

The prime minister of India was the first to react to the report. “There are nearly 160 million children in the country below the age of six years,” he said. “The problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame. Despite impressive growth in our GDP, the level of under-nutrition in the country is unacceptably high.”

In the words of Nobel laureate and welfare economist Dr Amartya Sen: “Famines are very easy to publicise, people dying of hunger is one thing. But people being underweight, stunted, their lifestyle, their probability of survival being diminished, all that is not so visible. My worry is the sentiment of country gets upset when it (GDP growth rate) goes from eight per cent to seven per cent. The sentiment of India doesn’t get affected by the higher number of under-nourished children than anywhere else. I think the food security bill, despite its faulty design, is a good move in this direction – that we care about the lives of Indians.”

Jay Panda is a member of parliament with Biju Janata Dal, the ruling party in the eastern state of Orissa. He is also a member of the alliance that assembled the report, and told Al Jazeera: “The fact is that, while India has been progressing quite a lot in the last 20 years, the fight against malnutrition has made little progress. So we need to prioritise it.”

Fifty per cent of Indian women are anaemic and 836m people live under less than Rs20 (38 US cents) a day. The manifesto of the ruling Congress party promised the enactment of a “right to food” act, if their alliance, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was voted back to power. In light of these figures, the food security bill cleared by the Indian cabinet, is a pro-poor legislation that would target the hungry and malnourished of India. The bill would guarantee cut-price grain to 63.5 per cent of India’s 1.2bn people.

Biraj Patnaik, the principal adviser on the right to food to the Supreme Court Commissioners, said: “It’s a moral imperative.”

Subsidy burden

However, this piece of legislature also faces strident resistance – as critics say the food security bill would add as much as $7.5bn to India’s subsidy burden.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by all United Nations member states in 1948, lists the right to food among a state’s obligations. Article 21 of the Indian constitution, which provides a fundamental right to life and personal liberty, has been repeatedly interpreted by the Indian Supreme Court as enshrining within it the right to food. Article 47 of the Indian constitution obliges the Indian state to raise the standard of nutrition of its people.

The most recent round of the National Family Health Survey in 2006 confirmed that the child malnutrition rate in India is almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa.

As Dr Sen points out, malnutrition may not be a screaming crisis, but if left unattended, it has the ability to cause damage of unlimited magnitude. A new law, subsidy, focus and collective consciousness may be required to deal with it.

Geeta may not have heard of the bill, but if the will of the legislature finally asserts it, millions might be saved the pangs of hunger.

Follow Anmol Saxena on Twitter: @bolanmol

Source: Al Jazeera