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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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