By Amrita Paul:
“We need to make sure nutrition is not easily neglected. And that means putting pressure on leaders throughout society to focus on nutrition.”
According to estimates made by the World Bank, India ranks second in the world of children suffering from malnutrition. A staggering 47% of children show signs of being undernourished. Around 2.1 million children below the age of five die every year because of typhoid, malaria, measles and pneumonia. India also has the most number of underweight children in the world which is nearly double of that of the sub-Saharan countries.
However, the combination of people living in poverty and the recent economic development of India has led to the co-emergence of two types of malnutrition: under-nutrition and over-nutrition. While the former emphasizes on micro-nutrient and protein deficiency, the latter talks about consuming excess of saturated fat which can lead to obesity. This condition worsens in a rural atmosphere in the presence of poverty and epidemics and the absence of healthcare and resources. Hence it is important to realize that having a right nutrient balance is as important as ensuring proper calorie intake for a child.
Depending on the protein deficit, malnutrition can be divided into three categories, namely – Grade I, Grade II and Grade III. Grade three is mild showing less than 60% protein deficiency, Grade II being moderate (75 to 89%), Grade I is a case of severe malnutrition ranging from 90 to 100%. The Government has launched several campaigns in order to combat the growing rate of under-nutritioned children. But are these efforts enough to initiate a change? Enough to provide one square meal to those 55 million children, most of whom die of starvation before the age of five?
A village healthcare official says – “It’s always been this way”. After being in the profession for nearly twenty five years, she feels – “Nothing has changed.” Unlike popular beliefs, doctors say that the problem of malnutrition start long before a child is born. A mother’s nutritional intake plays a major part in determining her child’s health. Her educational status decides whether she goes for an institutional delivery which prevents infections, or resigns herself to the hands of a midwife. Forty percent of the world’s low weight babies are born in India with a very high rate of anemia among women. According to recent studies, most of the damage is done before the child reaches the age of two, because this is the time it needs maximum attention. Hence, the Government needs to pay special attention to ensure the welfare of children, especially in the age bracket of zero to two.
However times are changing. More and more organizations are joining hands to help prevent the growth of malnourishment, especially in rural India. The likes of United Nations Children’s Fund and National Plan of Action for children have been supporting the country by providing health, education, and nutrition, water & sanitation facilities across villages especially in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar, where the rate of under-nutrition is very high. The Rural Health Mission of 2005-2012 is working alongside these organizations with a goal to “improve the availability of and access to quality health care by people, especially for those residing in rural areas, the poor, women, and children” and also to increase infant and maternal mortality rate.
Also it is important to ensure that there is adequate amount of proteins and vitamins along with the intake of the right amount of calories. Moreover, to be fair to the Government of India, it needs assistance to combat under-nutrition. With a burden of 35% child population, the government is faced with a problem it cannot tackle alone. Civil society, business, and the academic community have to play their part in providing a helping hand for this cause. Here even international donors have an important catalytic role to play. However inspite of all the support, leadership has to come from the government. Rather than being unobtrusive and discontinuous in its approach, the Government has to be firm and meet the problem in the eye. Lastly, quoting Victor Aguayo, chief of UNICEF’s nutrition program “India has already missed its big window of opportunity by not giving priority to mothers and the under-threes. It cannot afford to do so any longer.”