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Famished In The Land Of Plenty

Famished In The Land Of Plenty

Every year, an Irish aid agency, Concern Worldwide and a German organization, Welt Hunger Hilfe, tries to wake us up from deep slumber. Every year the media does its duty to give a jolt to the concerned, our elected representatives, including the prime minister, ministers, MPs, and so on. Has anything concrete happened so far despite all the wake-up calls? No. It seems we need a bigger jolt, a bigger shock.

The recently released global hunger Index (GHI) 2019 has shown that India has slipped to 102 out of 117 countries in 2019 from 55 in 2014. While this comparison may not be appropriate, considering the modification in the calculation or variance in the number of countries, yet the score above 100 should give sleepless nights to all.

The GHI scores countries on a 100-point severity scale, where zero is the best and 100 the worst. With a score of 102, we suffer from a level that is “serious”.  Should it not be enough to bring the attention of our ministers to the gravity of the issue?

The GHI score is calculated keeping in mind four indicators – undernourishment, child wasting (children below five who have a low weight for their height, reflecting acute under-nutrition), child stunting (children under age of five who have low height for their age, showing chronic under-nutrition) and child mortality (mortality rate of children under the age of five). The report also shows that child wasting rate is extremely high at 20.8 per cent, the highest for any country.

The report warns of serious social consequences, with wasting leading to impaired cognitive ability and poor learning outcomes. “Furthermore, for underweight and stunted girls, it invokes a vicious cycle whereby initial malnutrition with early child-bearing gets translated into poor reproductive health outcomes.”

Poor child health is also a consequence of early marriage. Even if a girl is married off at 18 years, she may not be prepared for bearing a child, something that our society rarely understands. Small wonder, a large majority of our girls suffer from anaemia, because they are not educated on nutritious diet, menstrual hygiene management, reproductive and child health and so on.

Around 90 per cent of the children in the age group of 6 and 23 months, the report says don’t even get the minimum required food, forget balanced nutritious diet. It points to a serious food crisis despite being a grain-surplus nation! The so-called demographic dividend, which we look upon, may become a liability, simply because they did not get adequate food and nutrition during their formative years.

The government data shows that foodgrain production has touched new heights over the last few years yet our children starve. Why? The answer lies in a recent study conducted by Akshay Swaminathan, from the department of statistics, Harvard University. The report titled “On Burden of Child malnutrition in India – a view of parliamentary constituencies”, shows that 35.90 per cent under the age of five have stunted growth.

Simply put, the ambitious goal of bringing an end to malnutrition by 2022 under Poshan Abhiyaan scheme seems to be hardly achievable.   The report has highlighted the operational flaws. The schemes aimed at promoting nutrition are highly dependent on the interests of the MPs. They have been given the responsibility of allocating funds under the MP local area development scheme.

In a majority of the cases, the funds are either not allocated adequately or are not used. Not only this, there have been cases of misuse of funds. The report reveals that “across Parliamentary constituencies, stunting ranged from 13.7 to 61.7 per cent, underweight ranged from 10.5 to 60.9 per cent, wasting ranged from 7.3 to 40.6 per cent, and anaemia ranged from 19.5 to 83.0 per cent”. The study has covered all 543 constituencies of the country.  

The report has highlighted the inter-state variations, sometimes within the state also. Apart from the interest of the MPs, household poverty level is another factor that aggravates the issue. If in a particular state or a constituency, household poverty is high, it will affect the average performance of the state, even if it is highly developed in other parameters.

A similar study published by World Vision India in association with IFMR LEAD, shows the performance of different states on 24 different parameters affecting the health of children, including Income poverty.   The indicators have been divided into three categories – healthy individual development, positive relationships and protective contexts. It shows that even the states that have put up an overall good performance in well-being of children have shown a dip in terms of child health. For instance, Tamil Nadu is the best performer in overall category. Yet, it slipped to the fifth position when it comes to health indicators.

The reports point to the way the policies are being implemented. While, it is fair to delegate responsibilities to the MPs for implementation of different schemes that the government announces, it is equally important to fix responsibility and accountability for achieving the set targets.

GHI 2019 is a big blow to the country. It is painful to know that our kids are suffering, as the ones who have been elected lack the understanding and will to give them a bright future. Unlike other matters, at least in this case, the government would not be able to blame the #70YearRule of the Congress. The score started falling only when the Modi government took over. In other words, there has been a serious flaw in implementing the policies.

Incidentally, the government has so far avoided giving an official statement on the matter. However, in a recent article published in the Economic Times, Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairman, NITI Ayog along with his colleagues, have argued that GHI could not do justice in capturing the four indicators. They present data from various reports and surveys. Based on their information, they argue that the new GHI rank should be 91 instead of 102.

This shows that the right hand of the government still believes that they are doing considerably well. It is akin to a bird closing its eyes thinking that the cat (which is standing in front of it) won’t eat it as it cannot see it. If this is the approach of the NITI Ayog, the policy think-tank of the government, what can we expect in the next two years – the self-imposed target for ending malnutrition?

Ever since the Lok Sabha elections 2019, the only issue that has taken overarching attention is article 370, Kashmir and Pakistan. The report should have given a shock to all those, who propagate nationalism, as we lag eight points behind the arch-rival Pakistan, when it comes to giving adequate food to our children. What a shame!

Our honourable Prime Minister, who dreams of achieving $5 trillion economy, despite the recessionary trends, should think about children, who would run this country in future. Should they be left unattended, simply because their parents can’t afford food or they don’t know what nutritious food is? Or the concerned MP has no interest in children?

True nationalism does not lie in propagating any religion or an ideology or speaking against a particular country but in ensuring that each and every citizen of this country enjoys a dignified quality of life. Hope our leaders understand this before it gets too late.

(The writer, a company secretary, can be reached at jassi.rai@gmail.com)

(Published on 28th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 44)