Amid the Coalgate controversy, the nation seems to have forgotten about the National Nutrition Week (September 1-7). But the truth is nutrition will continue to remain one of the vital issues for the government in the years to come.
According to a World Bank report, one in four of the world’s malnourished children is in India, even more than in sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) identified 20% of our under-five children as acutely malnourished and 48% as chronically malnourished. Recently, India’s nutritional awareness efforts were further pushed back when Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi attributed malnutrition in his state to vegetarianism and beauty consciousness of middle-class women.
However, the NFHS-3 survey data shows that vegetarianism does not necessarily lead to malnutrition. According to the survey of vegetarian females between 15 and 49 years, Haryana and Punjab lead the nation with 88% and 75% of the population, respectively, as compared to 70% in Gujarat. Still, Haryana and Punjab’s adult female malnutrition rate is lower than that of Gujarat’s.
Moreover, the occurrences of malnutrition cases have mostly been observed in the underprivileged sections of scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) communities. The 2011 India Human Development Report states: “Gujarat, one of the industrial and advanced states, has performed very badly with respect to adult women’s malnutrition among the socially marginalised groups.” The percentage of ST women with Body Mass Index (BMI) less than 18.5 was 61% in Gujarat as compared to 46.6% nationally (If the BMI of a woman is less than 18.5, she is classified as underweight).
To tackle the issue of malnutrition, the government must accept that it is strongly related to a deficit in level of education, sanitation and health and hygiene, in addition to the incomplete nutritional needs of mothers and children. We need to understand the root cause of the problem and only then we can solve it.
A good case in point is an East African nation — Eritrea. It was lauded by the World Health Organisation for reducing the Infant Mortality Rate from 92 in 1992 to 39 in 2009. Likewise, the child mortality rate (under-five deaths) was drastically reduced from 150 to 58 in the same period. The government identified malaria and improper sanitation as the main causes of these deaths and took measures to control the problem. It also took initiatives to provide primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare facilities to mothers and infants.
The Gujarat government should convince corporates to take up public-private partnership (PPP) projects on malnutrition. Such projects can widen the service delivery mechanisms as it will allow better resource mobilisation at a micro level.
Anurodh Lalit Jain is a social healthcare analyst
The views expressed by the author are personal