The Future of Nutrition in India
Nutrition is a critical, if not an essential part of the health and development of society and the country. Achieving proper nutrition is a difficult task that needs to account for varied dietary or nutritional requirements, and factors like calorie intake, age, gender, underlying deficiencies among others.
Despite many challenges, India has led one of the largest meal programmes across its schools, which has reached 11.80 crore children. The PM Poshan Shakti Nirman or PM POSHAN scheme promises to provide nutrition for 24 lakhs, additional children, in pre-primary classes, along with interventions like nutri-gardens in schools and promotion of locally grown traditional food items. The Anganwadi Services Scheme provides universal coverage to all children upto 6 years of age; pregnant women and lactating mothers and out of school adolescent girls for key services including provision of supplementary nutrition. The Scheme today operates through a network of 7,075 fully operational projects and 13.87 lakh operational anganwadi centres, as of March, 2021.
Though interventions like these are underway, the challenge of nutrition in India will need to be addressed continuously, in time to come. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have worsened the situation, not only in India, but globally, putting families at multiple risks, hindering food security, access and production.
According to the recently released Global Hunger Index Report, India’s ranking slipped marginally from 94 to 101 -- bringing hunger and nutrition to the centre stage, yet again. A significant part of the report is based on the data released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ report that uses the food balance-sheet data, that shows a country’s food supply during a particular period. The impact of Covid-19 on food security was assessed through a modified Gallup World Poll (GWP), using telephonic surveys owing to the pandemic. The report states, “Given the use of dual sampling frame (landline and mobile telephone) and potential for the presence of dual-users in households, additional weights were constructed (when relevant) to correct for the unequal probability of selection of respondents.” The team made a base weight which was adjusted on the basis of sex, age and education, among other indicators.
There still remains little clarity on the population surveyed and the lack of questions on the income and food support received makes it unclear as to how the report reached the final statistic regarding the undernourished population. The ministry of women and child development has contended this data as estimates from POSHAN tracker reveal a different picture. POSHAN tracker is a digital tool used by around 13.87 lakh Anganwadi workers to monitor nutrition indicators across women and children in India. According to this tracker, which is the most updated statistic in the country, nearly 30 lakhs of the 7.79 crore children aged between 6 months to 6 years are undernourished, and this amounts to approx. 3.9% of children in that age. It paints a clearer picture of the undernourished populations considered the most affected by nutritional challenges, as it provides real-time updates.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has created unprecedented health care, economic, food security, production, and distribution of food uncertainties all over the world. In India, many initiatives have been launched to address these, as well as to tackle the issue of undernutrition, including Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) to provide grains through the Public Distribution System (PDS) and had around 80 crore beneficiaries, and Atma Nirbhar Bharat Scheme (ANBS) which had an allocation of 8 lakh metric tonnes of additional free of cost food grains for individuals not covered under schemes.
Other than these, the announcement of Mission Poshan 2.0, an integrated nutrition support programme, in February 2021 by the ministry of women and child development, is a renewed commitment to improving nutritional outcomes in India. The scheme seeks to integrate the Anganwadi Services, Poshan Abhiyaan and Scheme for Adolescent Mission, to address the challenge of child malnutrition and maternal under-nutrition through a strategic shift in nutrition content and delivery. Among key initiatives, the scheme will optimise quality and delivery under the Supplementary Nutrition Programme and improve governance, transparency and efficiency.
It is crucial that India continues to work towards effective implementation of the schemes and invest additional efforts to ensure that the benefits of these schemes reach the maximum number of people, particularly the part of the society which needs it the most. To address these issues, significant focus is required from policymakers, while also ensuring that scientific data and evidence is generated to make timely and informed decisions.
Fighting the challenge of nutrition and hunger in India or elsewhere is long-drawn-out and inherently complex. All stakeholders, including government and non-government agencies as well as society itself, will need to come together and work in a coordinated manner to meet the long-standing challenge of nutrition in a country like India. These efforts should not, in any way, be compromised in the post-pandemic era simply because the problem of nutrition will need to be fought on a long-term basis.
The piece has been authored by Dr Virander Singh Chauhan, Arturo Falaschi emeritus scientist and founder of Empower, Transform, Inspire (ETI). Views are personal.