Context: The single greatest threat that blocks the promise of India at a foundational level is malnutrition.
What are the different effects of malnutrition on people?
- Effect of malnutrition: Malnourished children tend to fall short of their real potential physically as well as mentally. That is because malnutrition leaves their bodies weaker and more susceptible to illnesses.
- In 2017, a staggering 68% of 1.04 million deaths of children under five years in India was attributable to malnutrition, reckoned a Lancet study in 2019.
- Heavy burden: Malnutrition places a burden heavy enough for India, to make it a top national priority.
- About half of all children under five years in the country were found to be stunted (too short) or wasted (too thin) for their height, estimated the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, carried out by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare with support of UNICEF three years ago.
- Food insecurity: COVID-19 is pushing millions into poverty, reducing incomes of many more and disproportionately affecting the economically disadvantaged, who are also most vulnerable to malnutrition and food insecurities.
- Pandemic-prompted lockdowns disrupted essential services: Such as supplementary feeding under anganwadi centres, mid-day meals, immunisation, and micro-nutrient supplementation which can worsen malnutrition.
- Economic insecurities: It often force girls into early marriage, early motherhood, discontinue their schooling, and reduce institutional deliveries, cut access to micronutrient supplements, and nutritious food which largely tend to be perishable, all of which may worsen malnutrition.
- Accelerating efforts to address these will be needed to stop the regression into the deeper recesses of malnutrition.
What are the steps to be taken?
- It is time to renew our commitment to nutrition for two reasons:
- First, because it conveys the deeply symbolic value of the first 1,000 days from conception of a child till the child turns two years old, marking the most crucial period for nutrition interventions in a lifecycle, which once missed could result in irreversible damage to the child’s physical and mental well-being.
- Second, focus on nutrition is critical as COVID-19 threatens to derail the gains India has made in nutrition in more than one way.
- (POSHAN) Abhiyaan: A holistic approach to tackle malnutrition started gathering momentum.
- Under it, the government strengthened the delivery of essential nutrition interventions so that more children have the right start in life for optimum growth, health, development and a prosperous future.
- Six-pronged action that can save on the advances India has made in nutrition: These clear action points include commitments around sustained leadership, dedicated finances, multi-sectoral approach and increased uninterrupted coverage of a vulnerable population under programmes enhancing nutrition.
- Schemes: India already has some of the world’s biggest early childhood public intervention schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme, the mid-day meal programme, and Public Distribution System.
- India needs to ensure coverage of every single child and mother, along with 12 months of Poshan Maah (Nutrition Month), 52 weeks of breastfeeding weeks and 365 days of take-home ration.
- Financial commitments: To ensure this, the country needs to retain its financial commitments for the nutrition schemes it already runs.
- The country must track nutrition indices through data systems. Evidence generated through data will also serve well to track the positive impact of POSHAN Abhiyaan, and course correct on the long journey to a well-nourished India.