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National shame, but who cares?
By Pandurang Hegde

Successive Prime Ministers and their governments have termed malnutrition as a national shame. But their misplaced economic and agricultural policies have only exacerbated the problem.


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Instead of taking firm steps, policymakers expect market to tackle poverty and hunger

Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that the high level of malnutrition among children in India is unacceptable and termed it a national ‘shame’. He made these remarks while releasing a report, which mentioned that among the children under age of five across six states in North India 42 percent are underweight, and 59 percent of them suffer from stunting.

Was this a startling finding for the PM? A study by UN in 2005-06, had concluded, “About 73 per cent of children in India were malnourished, who were under weight and had stunted growth”. In addition to this the National Family Health Survey, 2006, concluded that 79 per cent of children are anemic, an increase from 74 per cent in 1988-89.

Obviously, these figures had revealed the prevalence of severe degree of malnutrition and hunger in the country over the years.

It might have taken years for our Prime Minister to accept the bitter truth, but the spread of malnutrition and hunger is a severe indictment of the ongoing fiscal, economic and social policies of the government that have resulted in sub Saharan conditions in several parts of India. The national shame is the insensitivity and failure of the political leadership to address this crisis.

The Food Security Bill tabled in the Parliament aims to reduce hunger and malnutrition by providing wheat and rice at cheaper rates to about fifty per cent of the population. However, the poor cannot just live by eating chappatis or rice. This may meet the need of carbohydrates, but the body needs other micronutrients and proteins. These are available through consumption of fruits, vegetables and animal protein like milk or eggs and meat. With the double-digit inflation, these products are now beyond the reach of poor. Even the lower middle class families are not in a position to afford these regularly, leaving them malnourished.

It might have taken years for our Prime Minister to accept the bitter truth, but the spread of malnutrition and hunger is a severe indictment of the ongoing fiscal, economic and social policies of the government that have resulted in sub Saharan conditions in several parts of India.

The irony is that India ranks as the second largest producer of milk and vegetables in the world, but majority of the citizens are not able to consume these due to poor purchasing capacity. As a consequence of successful Horticultural mission, we have subsidized the production of high value fruits like grapes and pomegranates. Most of these products are exported at the cost of depriving local people of decent nutrient rich food. This has accelerated the poverty of soil and mining of the scarce water resources.

The change in food habits even in the remote regions in India is very drastic, replacing traditional food systems with the processed product of multinational food companies. These products are not only nutrient deficient, but they have adverse impact on the health. Even though these are more expensive, the poor communities are lured to buy their products through deceitful advertising. A doctor in Chandigarh said “the labor class women feed their children with kurkure, a packaged spicy snack, as staple food instead of fruits or vegetables”.

We need to put tag of national shame on those political leaders and bureaucrats who have deliberately neglected to address the issue of malnutrition in the country. The neo liberal agenda implemented by the different regimes over past two decades has only accelerated the problem. The devastation of rural economy and agriculture, and resultant migration of people to urban areas are bound to increase the number of malnourished people in the country.

Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) by the government is a pro-active step but remains a piecemeal solution. The insignificant finical allocation, tardy implementation and failure to reach the needy in remote regions indicate the lack of commitment by the ruling establishment both at the centre and the state level.

In the midst of this dismal scenario, the launching of the Citizens Alliance Against Malnutrition in 2004 under the leadership of Sachin Pilot and other young Members of Parliament cutting across the party lines raised hope that younger generation of lawmakers were eager to address the issue.

Making a mockery of claims of high growth, the Food and Agricultural Organization, Human Development Index, Global Huger Index and the National Family Health Surveys have repeatedly revealed the prevalence of acute malnutrition in the country, both in rural and urban areas.

They met the Prime Minister to update him on the ground realities of malnutrition after visiting different states. But it will be naïve to believe that the Prime Minister is not aware of the gravity of the situation. Both PM and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission need no briefings on this issue. Their craze for chasing the double-digit GDP growth and the benefits trickling down to the poorest has met with a dismal failure. Making a mockery of their claims of high growth, the Food and Agricultural Organization, Human Development Index, Global Huger Index and the National Family Health Surveys have repeatedly revealed the prevalence of acute malnutrition in the country, both in rural and urban areas.

Rather than taking immediate steps to rectify this deep rooted malaise, they have adopted a diagonally opposite path in which the health budget has been reduced to about 1 per cent of GDP, as well as cutting down expenditure on welfare and educational schemes that could effectively reduce the cases of malnutrition.

Sadly, the political leaders endorse the advice of economists that malnutrition can be tackled by market forces. In order to implement this market driven strategy, they have resorted to bio fortification of food supplied through ICDS with the aid of corporate sector. They now advocate eradication of malnutrition through genetically modified (GM) golden rice and other GM crops.

For our ruling class, the epidemic of malnutrition provides a great economic opportunity! For that, they are willing to surrender the moral and ethical values at the altar of ‘Market God’. This shows their insensitivity to the suffering of our countrymen.

To tackle the epidemic of malnutrition the country needs to launch a massive campaign, using the synergies of different sections in the society. The deeper malaise needs to be addressed at social and economic levels. Instead of top down approach, the people must be empowered to meet their nutritional needs at the village level.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Pandurang Hegde  |  appiko@gmail.com

Pandurang Hegde is a farmer, environmentalist and writer based in Sirsi town in Karnataka. He is well known for launching the Appiko movement which played a key role in protecting many forests from the axe in the Western Ghats region.

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