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Malnutrition-Free India by 2022? Unlikely, Says CSE

Dr. Lakshmi Unnithan
Dr. Lakshmi Unnithan

In 2017, some 1.04 million under-five children died in the country. Over 68.2 per cent of the deaths were due to malnutrition. In the same year, the Global Hunger Index, that assesses progresses and setbacks in combating hunger, ranked India 102nd out of 117 countries. In the last two decades, the country’s score has improved by just 21.9 per cent, while that of Brazil has improved by 55.8 per cent, Nepal by 43.5 per cent and Pakistan by 25.6 per cent.

India stares at a steeply uphill task in meeting UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on child malnutrition, reports the latest State of India’s Environment Annual, released by Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot.  India’s economy has doubled since 1991 and the world’s largest programme to tackle child malnutrition, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), has been in force in the country since 1975. The government’s POSHAN Abhiyaan’s implementation poor and targets are unambitious says Centre for Science Environment and Down to Earth’s   State of India’s Environment 2020 report. Malnutrition continues to be the leading killer of under-five children in India – in 2017, malnutrition accounted for over 68 per cent of those deaths.

Responding to this daunting challenge, the Union government launched the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme of Holistic Nutrition or POSHAN Abhiyaan in 2018. The government allocated the scheme Rs 2,849.54 crore for three years, beginning 2017-8, and introduced a new target: malnutrition-free India by 2022.

But implementation of infant young child feeding (IYCF) practices promoted by the scheme is poor and not reflected on the ground. When compared to the severity of the problem, the year-by-year targets of the scheme are also unambitious. Estimates suggest that, at the current rate, it will take between 23 years (in Punjab) and 100 years (in Jharkhand) to meet the SDG targets on stunting. Similarly, it will take 28 years (in Madhya Pradesh) and 88 years (again in Jharkhand) to meet the SDG targets on wasting.

Steps like conversion of anganwadi centres into crèches; universal and wage compensatory maternity entitlements; adoption of food and nutrition security as a fundamental right; and commitment for community-based management of malnutrition might help in turning the tide. Says Richard Mahapatra, managing editor of Down To Earth and one of the lead editors of the State of India’s Environment Annual:

According to the LANCET report, there is double burden of malnutrition alongside under-nutrition, at all levels of the population—country, city, community, household, and individual. A LANCET report says that the above two are interconnected and, therefore, double-duty actions that simultaneously address more than one dimension must be implemented for policy solutions to be effective. In addition to policy recommendations, the Series includes a focus on both historical and biological contexts, and new economic analysis. We find that its high time necessary steps and ambitious targets be set aside to tackle these. With the burgeoning population, merely the schemes will not necessarily act to put things together and ensure that the kids get proper nutrition and also many do not go hungry. There should be an overhaul of policies and food transformation systems in place to make sure that diverse food reaches the population. Diverse thalis could ensure proper nutrition, but for that awareness measures need to be done too. How effectively these are done during the times of erratic climate also matters.

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