Can We Declare India Malnutrition Free by 2020 If We Ignore The Role Of Casteism?

The government is reportedly in pursuit of achieving an objective of malnutrition free India by 2022. With just 2 more years to go, stories from India’s villages, have so far, not succeeded to paint an encouraging picture. Of all the roadblocks, the caste system remains the biggest hindrance that vitiates any efforts of achieving a malnutrition free India.

A mother feeds her malnourished child in the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre of Sheopur district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh April 6, 2010. India ranked 65th out of 84 countries in the Global Hunger Index of 2009, below countries including North Korea and Zimbabwe — hindering India’s ambitions to channel its demographic dividend to fuel its global economic ambitions. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

The Hindu had recently published an article by Mr. Krishna Kumar, former director of NCERT, outlining the many deficiencies of India’s nutrition mission. He explains how a civic responsibility, like nutrition distribution, is often misconstrued as an act of charity. This is true of any social initiative that requires public spending and unbiased government intervention, like education or healthcare.

Even as India tumbled to a dismal GHI rank, the state’s efforts have been mainly concentrated in dispelling its bad name, rather than addressing actual problems. For example, The Economic Times had published an explanatory report on October 19th, 2019, by the vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, on why India’s abysmal GHI rank of 102, does not essentially point to a situation as grave, as the huge number would have us believe. The 4 GHI indicators include Undernourishment, Child Wasting, Child Stunting and Child Mortality and India performed worse than numerous poor African countries on most fronts.

Going by the statistics provided in the ET report, however, 98.16 lakh women have availed the PMMVY (Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana), a conditional cash transfer for pregnant and lactating women. The report further goes on to enlist every developmental measure implemented by the government, such as increased honorarium of field workers, pan India introduction of Rota Virus vaccination etc. A fact this report chooses to conveniently ignore is that Indian society is not homogeneous.

Can We Combat Malnutrition Without Considering the Impact Of Casteism?

The children from Dalit communities are prevented from sitting with non-dalits for meals, this included 63% of the total Dalit population that attend Anganwadis. (*Image is for representational purposes*)

In a dystopian casteist society like India, data provided without the caste-wise break-up will be inadequate to assess ground conditions. This is where another important takeaway from Mr.Krishna Kumar’s article needs to be emphasised; without addressing casteism, malnutrition in India can never be combated. The caste system’s intimate association with food is not something we can ignore.

Reports of caste-based discrimination and apartheid impinge upon every aspect of the nutrition mission in most Indian villages. According to a report published by Jan Sahas, India, based on their action research, on social exclusion in education, health and nutrition-related services in the state of Madhya Pradesh, apartheid continues to be strictly practised towards disadvantaged communities, to this day.

National Nutrition Mission and its schemes seem to be a territory entirely ceded to the caste of Hindus in these regions. The Dalit community’s access to benefits under the scheme is curtailed by subjugating non-dalits among the beneficiaries, as well as, among the field level functionaries.

54% of children in Dalit communities are deprived of Anganwadi facilities, the report reads. Even the 46% that brave these odds, to claim what’s rightfully theirs, have had to succumb to discriminatory practices and give up attending Anganwadis altogether.

Discrimination is meted out to children as young as 3-5 years old, including practices that are in violation of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Most barbaric forms of apartheid exist in these temples of primary education. The children from Dalit communities are prevented from sitting with non-dalits for meals, this included 63% of the total Dalit population that attend Anganwadis. Some Anganwadi functionaries even seat these kids outside, ‘teaching them their place in the caste hierarchy’ at so young an age.

47% of parents confirmed that their wards were, hence, forced to bring their meals home. The appropriation doesn’t stop here. Children from the Chamar castes, for example, are discouraged from even attending the Anganwadis owing to their supposed lack of cognitive abilities.

79% of such children were reported to have been forced into cleaning Anganwadi premises on a regular basis. 11% of the children surveyed testified that their teachers referred to them by their caste identities. The teachers collude with the non-Dalit members of the communities, to create a casteist atmosphere in Anganwadis.

Deep entrenched casteism, has, in this way, kept the Dalits from enjoying the benefits of most government schemes. The field level functionaries, as much as the non-Dalit villagers are generally under the flawed impression that dispensation of these benefits is a charity afforded to the Dalits. The Dalit and non-Dalit children alike are born into a vicious system, that forces them to conform to it from a very tender age.

In the 4 districts surveyed, ANMs are reported to have desisted from visiting predominantly Dalit villages. This has led to an uneven distribution of benefits. 42% Dalit women did not receive the required vaccinations during pregnancy, 46% women have reported that the functionaries did not touch the women during the treatment and up to 28% have reported that the ANMs use casteist slurs and abuse them. This comes at a time when PMMVY is being hailed widely for its implementation success.

A palpable error in most governmental schemes of the kind, especially ICDS and MDMS, is that they are invariably associated with poverty, and hence, equated with charity. This is a point from which we cannot digress in a discussion on malnutrition.

Hope for resurrection is non-existent, as long as these aren’t seen as civic responsibilities, (as experts have pointed out). A midday meal scheme should not only ensure what nutrients go in but also what values are imparted. Schools provide the perfect stage for building a progressive, anti- casteist society. This requires overarching measures.

An increase in honorarium for an Anganwadi worker, should go hand in hand, with an efficient monitoring system, that ensures the distribution of benefits is inclusive, for example.

Why Is The Situation In Kerala Different?

An ICDS worker at Nenmara, Kerala, opines that instances of discrimination are minimal in Kerala, because the beneficiaries know their rights, and the monitoring system is efficient.

Moreover, in Kerala, for an Anganwadi worker protecting her means of livelihood is far more important than protecting her caste. Misconduct by the workers are sternly dealt with and the child rights commission is a strong entity. Theirs is an example that can be emulated. This is not to say Kerala is malnutrition free; the tribal population in Kerala’s Attappady has the highest concentration of malnourished kids in Kerala, and this is attributed to the lack of transportation facilities, that can negotiate the difficult terrains.

Going by history, however, none of this really matters – for all it takes to declare the country nutrition free by 2022 is a well written, well-publicised speech on a national holiday. A prime ministerial harangue will soon declare the nation malnutrition free just like it did with open defecation.

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