Statistics can be mind-numbing, especially when they set out to tabulate human deprivations. But taken in the right spirit and with the right purpose in mind, statistical reports can work as guiding light for focused action to overcome those challenges. Which is precisely how the central and state governments must look at the Hunger and Malnutrition Report (HUNGaMA) that was released by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on Tuesday.
The report, a work of the Citizens’ Alliance Against Malnutrition, is alarming as well as upsetting. Of the 112 districts surveyed across Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh — some forming parts of India’s infamous ‘Bimaru’ club — the report found that almost 42% of India’s children, numbering over 61 million, are malnourished and stunted. Unsurp-risingly, it also found that girls lose their nutritional advantage that they have over boys in the first few years of their life as they grow older. While lack of nutritional food is one reason for this dismal state of affairs, the report also found that income of families, mothers’ education level and awareness of and access to proper sanitation facilities also have a direct bearing on the nutritional status of children.
Importantly, the report has put a question mark on the three most important targeted welfare schemes run by the Indian government, which are also the world’s largest: the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the Mid-day Meal Scheme for schoolchildren, and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan. Since all three programmes reach out to millions of underprivileged children and have a big footprint on the health of children, it is time to seriously look into the problems dogging the system.
And if there is one point of intervention that should be completely overhauled, it is the anganwadi system, a crucial link between the ICDS and its beneficiaries, women and under-6 children. To do that, the government needs to look at the most important player in the system: the anganwadi worker. Most anganwadi workers are underpaid, are not on permanent rolls and don’t receive regular trainings.
They are unmotivated and their work zones — the anganwadi centres — are often run down and barely standing. For example, in Rajasthan, the main anganwadi worker gets just Rs 1,800, the helper much less. Yet, there’s no job guarantee or pension. In Tamil Nadu, the same system has been working better thanks to, what many say, political will and better fund allocations. The anganwadi workers are better paid there — R4,600 with health reimbursement accounts, bonus and increments. Malnutrition is not solely a health issue. It has a direct bearing on the long-term development of the country. In his speech after the release of the report, the PM admitted that “despite impressive growth in our GDP, the level of malnutrition is unacceptably high”. This is exactly our thought too.