Scourge of Malnutrition

"Save the Children”, an NGO is seeking donations for helping out the mal-nourished children in India. By ‘malnourished” it obviously means severely under-nourished children. It claims it has been saving children’s lives since 2008 and that last year it provided medical care and nutritional support to 1.46 lakh children.

The extent of under-nourishment in India being what it is providing succor to only a lakh and a half children is actually no big deal. The problem is huge and perhaps it would need a thousand organizations like the Save the Children to liquidate under-nutrition from among the Indian children. It needs huge amount of resources, both of well-trained men and women and financial. Both being scarce, large-scale under-nutrition of children is not likely to be eliminated any time soon.

It is, basically, a failure of the government despite its reach in the remotest recesses of the country where poverty is most manifest. Besides, the government has all the paraphernalia for the very purpose to extend relief to the stricken lot. An NGO can only do so much and not more. Any amount of donation is not going to be of help. It will not be like even a drop in the ocean.

According to a Rapid Survey of Children conducted by UNICEF about 30% of Indian children below 5 years in age are malnourished. What is more alarming is that 20% of them, which is more than a third of children of the world, suffer from wasting due to acute under-nutrition. This distressing situation does not quite match with technological boom in the country and its progressive economic growth.

One would tend to think that the government’s weak outreach has also affected the nutritional levels of children. These could be, inter alia, weak implementation of governmental nutritional schemes, inadequate health infrastructure, services, unsafe water, lack of sanitation and hygiene. All these, in addition to the reigning poverty in the country, particularly in its rural areas have contributed to severe under-nutrition of people across various age groups.

Quite clearly a high economic growth rate does not take care of the entire population, especially those who are precluded from its benefits. It has been consistently held that the gross product based growth is veritably iniquitous. India has witnessed this phenomenon as since 1991 when the country opted for the capitalistic system after opening up of the economy rich have become richer and poor have become poorer if they have not stayed where they were.

While the economy registered high growth rate it did not in any way make a difference to the deprived lots of rural and semi-urban India. The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” has not yet proved to be true for India. The country is almost always seen to be scraping the bottom as far as its social indicators are concerned.

And, yet the country is chasing GDP-based economic growth. A recent release indicating fall in the GDP growth rate was made an occasion by the Opposition to take pot shots at the government. Censure, condemnation, criticism, denigration, et al were hurled forgetting that under its own stewardship for fifty-odd years the country had achieved what is deprecatingly called the Hindu Rate of Growth of only 3.5%.

But that is neither here nor there. What is important is that growth or no growth a large section of the country’s population has been wallowing in poverty for decades giving rise to all kinds of scourges, like hunger and diseases such as anemia, tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS and so on. But what hits them most is under-nutrition that is carried from one generation to another. Perhaps, it is time the fetish of GDP-based growth is given up in favour of growth based on improvement of general wellbeing of people, a better and healthier life for all.

While tackling children’s malnutrition is important for the reason that on attaining adulthood they should, instead of being a drain, become productive members of the society, more important would seem to be tackling the under-nutrition of mothers. If women suffer from the results of under-nutrition, they would be incapable of providing the required nutrition to their new-born and other older children in the early years of their lives.
Traditionally in the country’s patriarchal society nutrition of daughters is neglected from childhood. On attaining adolescence or maturity, with all the handicaps developed due to their under-nutrition, they are married off early and are made to slog in the kitchen. Patriarchy also deprives women the right to decide about spacing of children which is seldom observed, draining further the strength of an emaciated mother. Besides, patriarchy demands that women in the house get to eat only the leftovers which may not even be enough to satiate their hunger. So the chain of under-nutrition continues. This has got to be broken by providing succor to them by ushering in social change.

While hunger, child-marriage, depressed social status due to the prevailing caste system, unemployment and poverty are major reasons for under-nutrition, the situation is exacerbated by unsafe water and lack of proper sanitation and hygiene. Add to these the governments’ weak implementation of its policies and the prevailing unhealthy feeding and caring practices in addition to ignorance about healthy diets and what one gets is a lethal mix.

 It is in these areas that the government needs to mount an all-out assault, instead of chasing a higher figure of GDP. A healthy nation will be more productive than one that is stunted, wasted and under-nourished; in that event the gross domestic product will take care of itself. The World Bank estimates that India loses around 2 to 3% of the GDP on account of widespread under-nutrition. Laws like Food Security Act etc are useless, just as inefficiently implemented nutritional Missions of the Centre and various states. What is needed is concentrated sustained extension work in the affected areas to educate people about all matters relevant to under-nutrition.

Curiously, India has not used the leaves of the Moringa plant in the way Africans are using it to eliminate under-nutrition. Several researches have proved that the leaves of the plant have much more of the minerals and vitamins than what are found in conventional diet of vegetables and eggs. For instance, Moringa’s powdered leaves have 7 times more vitamin C than in oranges, 36 time more magnesium than in eggs, 50 times more vitamin B3 than peanuts and 50 times more Vitamin B2 than bananas. Even its seeds have been found to be capable of eliminating contaminants from water that cause so much of rural distress in India. It is a cheap way of dealing with under-nutrition. The plants grow with ease in almost every part of India and can be useful in greening the countryside. Since Africans are reported to be reaping benefits from this plant, sometimes called the miracle tree, there is no reason why India should not follow suit. The leaves of the plant are exported but curiously are not used to the desired extent in India.

Despite the Constitutional provision in Article 47 the state has not discharged its responsibility to raise the level of nutrition and improve public health. It is, therefore, for the government at the Centre and in the states to seriously take up the responsibility to deal with this huge problem instead of leaving it to ill-equipped NGOs who can only touch it only on the fringes.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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