In a country that thrives on politics, Bollywood and cricket, a study on the nutritional status of the nation would not usually create any commotion. Yet the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC), a nationwide survey commissioned by the UPA 2 government and conducted by Unicef, has created a stir.
It was not the data that created the kerfuffle, but rather it was the politics behind the NDA government’s decision to withhold it which generated a lot of heat. According to the Unicef report, while India has seen a dip of over 14% in the number of malnourished children (six years and below) to 30.7% — the sharpest in 25 years — the country still lags behind sub-Saharan Africa, where 21% children are malnourished.
The survey also confirmed that there are huge — and enduring — discrepancies among states, including the poor performance of Gujarat, a ‘developed’ state. The Opposition has alleged that the report is being withheld precisely because of this. However, this is probably not the only reason.
There are two more: One, the new National Family Health Survey report is likely to come out soon and the government doesn’t see any justification on releasing another health card now; and two, the improvement in the nutrition indices gives a leg-up to the Congress because it shows that their health initiatives, like the National Rural Health Mission and the revamped Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme, did actually deliver. Incidentally, the NDA has cut the allocation for ICDS from Rs 16,000 crore range to Rs 8,000 crore in the last budget. On Monday, the government set up a panel to review the methodology of the survey — a nice way to buy time.
Whether the government accepts the survey or not, the truth is that India is facing a triple burden of malnutrition — under nutrition, over nutrition (overweight and obesity) and micronutrient deficiencies. The multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies in our under-2s and under-5s are on the rise in elite sections of society.
The RSOC findings can help policy-makers to fine-tune their policies and see what poor states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, which have had India’s the worst child health indices, did to improve the scenario. The results should lead to a dialogue between the stakeholders so that growth strategies can be discussed in a transparent and coordinated manner. The findings also highlight the importance of investing in better survey methodologies, trained workforce and strengthened monitoring and evaluation processes for sustainable gains.