Context: New evidence on child nutrition calls for radical expansion of child development services.
What are the various issues found by several survey reports on child nutrition?
- NFHS-4: Leaving aside two or three countries like Niger and Yemen, India has the highest proportion of underweight children in the world: a full 36 per cent according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 (NFHS-4).
- The corresponding proportion is much lower in other South Asian countries, including Bangladesh (22 per cent) and Nepal (27 per cent).
- NFHS-5: Early data from the National Family Health Survey 2019-20 reveals another alarming fact: Child nutrition indicators have not improved between 2015-16 and 2019-20.
- In fact, in seven out of 10 major states for which data has been released, the proportion of underweight children increased in that period. In six of these 10 states, stunting increased.
- Hunger watch: In the latest survey, Hunger Watch, two-thirds of the respondents (adults from India’s poorest households) said that they were eating less nutritious food today than before the lockdown.
- Lockdown impact: Mid-day meals in schools and anganwadis were discontinued from the lockdown onwards, to this day. Many states did try to make some arrangement for distribution of cash or “take-home rations” in lieu of cooked meals, but these measures were mostly haphazard and inadequate.
- Disruption of routine health services: Children have also suffered from the massive disruption of routine health services including immunisation during the lockdown, evident from the official Health Management Information System.
- Closure of anganwadis: The prolonged closure of anganwadis and schools possibly had other, less well-documented consequences, such as an increase in child labour and child abuse.
- Budget allocation: In annual Budget for 2015-16, there were staggering cuts in financial allocations for mid-day meals and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). The central budget for mid-day meals (Rs 11,000 crore) is lower than what it was in 2014-15 (Rs 13,000 crore).
- The central allocation for ICDS is also lower today than it was six years ago. Poshan Abhiyaan, government’s flagship programme for child nutrition, has a minuscule budget of Rs 3,700 crore.
What are the steps to be taken?
- Pregnant women’s right to maternity benefits: Rs 6,000 per child under the National Food Security Act 2013. The benefits were illegally restricted to one child per family and Rs 5,000 per child under Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana.
- Extending maternity entitlements to all births, not just the first living child, is a legal obligation under NFSA, and the spirit of the Act also calls for raising their amount well above the outdated norm of Rs 6,000 per child.
- Reviving and revamping mid-day meals: In schools and anganwadis would be a good start.
- For example, inclusion of eggs (not only in mid-day meals but also in take-home rations for young children and pregnant women), with a fruit option or such for vegetarians.
- The ICDS programme also needs a shot in the arm: India has an invaluable network of 14 lakh anganwadis managed by local women. Most of these anganwadi workers and helpers are capable women who can work wonders with a supportive environment.
- The southern states, and some other states like Himachal Pradesh and even Odisha, have amply demonstrated the possibility of turning anganwadis into vibrant child development centres at the village level.