BY ANANYA AHLUWALIA
Global Hunger Index (GHI) recently published its 2020 report, ranking India at 94 out of 107 countries, in the ‘serious’ category on hunger. Even as India claims to have achieved food security, it has not been able to ensure there is food on every plate and that no child sleeps on an empty stomach. Globally, 873 million people are undernourished, of which 28% are in India. It amounts to 189.2 million people, about 14% of India’s population. The GHI from the early 2000s onwards each year shows how consistently poor India has been in feeding its citizens.
Owing to several reasons such as widespread poverty, wealth inequalities and a job crisis, for a large portion of our population, expense for a meal and income are two ends that are hard to meet. A recent study finds that 76% of rural Indians cannot afford a nutritious diet, that is 3 out of 4 people of the country. And this does not even account for the meals of non earning members of households, such as children and elders.
Children make up the most food vulnerable section of the population. Unlike older adults, they are too young to understand nutrition and provide for those needs, and remain entirely dependent on their primary caregivers for all their basic needs. In certain households they are last to receive the meal, and sometimes only get leftovers. Children from underprivileged households face multiple deprivations, and suffer from lack of nutrition during the most crucial years of body and brain development. As a result, they suffer from acute malnutrition (wasting) and stunted growth during the early years of their life, and if they are lucky to survive, their health and immunity remains compromised throughout their life.
India has the highest child wasting rate of 20.8%, highest for any country according to the report, and has a stunting rate of 37.4%. Acute undernutrition in children under the age of five, known as wasting, when the child has low weight for height, has been persistent; it shows an increase from 16.5% in 2008-12 period to 20.8% in 2014-18 and year 2020, the trend is likely to continue. There has been one positive, that is a slight improvement in child mortality rates from factors such as asphyxia or birth trauma, neonatal infections, pneumonia and diarrhea, however deaths from premature birth and low birth weight is still a grave matter. The overall report paints a dismal picture. It’s scary to imagine the fate of a child born in an underprivileged family in this country.
Several policies have been initiated by different ministries over the years focussing on nutrition, immunization, education, sanitation etc. Integrated Child Development Services(ICDS) Scheme since 1975, offers a package of services to this end, a targeted Public Distribution System provides food grains at subsidised rates. The National Nutrition Mission has the target to reduce undernutrition and stunting in children, as well as adolescent girls, and women. Also known as Poshan Abhiyan, its mission is to make the country malnutrition free by 2030. Yet even after many years, we do not seem to be positively progressing as the cycle of poverty, hunger and malnutrition continues. With a host of such policies, India continues to hope to achieve this goal. But will it be able to manage its target on time? Will India be able to secure the rights to a healthy life for its children?
Hunger has been a chronic issue for the country. There are several reasons for India’s failure in tackling the problem. Poor coordination and implementation between departments, absence of robust mechanisms of early identification, and a lack of effective monitoring coupled with little awareness at the grassroots have prevented substantial improvements. In addition to these, presently other emergent factors are certain to exacerbate the situation; there is an estimated food shortage due to locusts attacks and the economic shock due to Covid-19 pandemic. These are tough times, there is a looming hunger crisis and a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impacts of Covid-19 than from the virus itself. India bears the double burden of protecting its vulnerable population that could be more susceptible to infections due to malnourishment, and also ensure that they die of neither Covid nor hunger.
UNICEF has also pointed towards the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 and how this is more likely to cause more harm to children than the disease itself, “Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted. Food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates will go up”. Malnourishment due to poverty has an inverse relation to socio economic progress, persons are more likely to remain within the clutches of poverty. As the world pays the price for the pandemic, children shall suffer the worst harm with long term adverse effects plaguing their future lives.
Poor management of existing hunger plus the economics of Covid, the eradication of hunger seems to be in the long haul. Meanwhile India will be nurturing a stunted future of the country.