Over six decades ago, as a newly independent country, one of the key issues we in India needed to address was that of endemic hunger. What is appalling is that what was a problem then is as much of a problem today. India is home to the world’s largest food insecure population, with over 200 million hungry people, and half the country’s children are malnourished.
What is more worrisome is that this situation exists despite the right to food being underscored as an inalienable, fundamental entitlement of every human being. So, what can be done to ensure food on every plate? For this, we need to understand the problem of hunger. People go hungry as they don’t have the means to buy enough food. Hunger is primarily a result of poverty, and thus overall economic growth and its distributional pattern needs policy intervention. In this regard, it is critical to pay attention to employment opportunities so as to improve household incomes, which directly influence people’s ability to buy food.
In the interim, we have the Food Security Act which sees itself as policy intervention to address the issue of hunger in the nation. What further inputs it needs is to look at government policy coherence pertaining to food security and malnourishment so that we can ensure our goal of healthy children. For this, the means of specialized delivery of food, like mid-day meal schemes in schools and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres that particularly help underprivileged children, need to be looked into effectively. This can not only increase the incentive of children to go to school, but also truly make them healthier and less undernourished. The Supreme Court has been judicious in emphasizing the importance of this right in recent judgements.
The status of the mother also plays a very important role in determining the prevalence of malnutrition in children. If the mother is anaemic, does not have access to nutritious food, rest, care and attention during pregnancy, then babies are born with low birth weight.
Various factors need to be considered once the baby is born. Is it being breastfed exclusively for six months? Is it being protected against preventable diseases? Is the child being provided with adequate and appropriate supplementary nutrition once it turns six months old? Are the feeding practices appropriate and hygienic? These are just some of the factors that need to be looked into.
One needs to have not only a comprehensive understanding of the issue, but also a comprehensive approach that addresses critical aspects in the life cycle of both, the mother and the child. Such an approach will focus on tackling anaemia in children, adolescent health, prevent child marriage, ensure adequate care and nutrition for the mother during pregnancy, ensure institutional delivery that is safe, and make exclusive breastfeeding a possibility for every child.
Thus we need a strategy that addresses access to food which is diverse and nutritious, also has a component to generate awareness about positive and harmful practices, strong programs that ensure that the entire first two years of the child starting right from conception are adequately invested upon in terms of health and nutrition.
This is the reason our organisation Child Rights and You (CRY) has included ensuring food security at household level for all marginalized groups of people with proper implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013, in our child rights manifesto, which addresses the needs of our children.
We also have recommended the following amendments:
1) Increasing the protein/fat intake for children and pregnant mothers to 20-25gms (according to a Supreme Court order) instead of the current provision of 18-20gms,
2) Including services such as immunisation and health check-ups which have been part of the ICDS as part of the act, and
3) Making provision for supplementary nutrition for children in the 14-18 years age group in the act.
The success of the effective implementation of government schemes in this regard can be seen in the CRY intervention in the tribal populated districts of north Gujarat, which have witnessed cases of severe malnourishment in their children for decades, but where very little was being done to resolve the situation. A survey done by CRY partner Danta Adivasi Sarvangi Vikas Sangh (DASVS) near Danta town and Amirgadh Tehsil found 416 malnourished children in 20 villages.
With the backing of CRY’s experience of working on children’s nutrition, and through community awareness and regular representations made to government representatives, DASVS demanded and was able to push for the setting up of more ICDS centres in the area, which could provide supplementary nutrition to children.
Today, there are eight new ICDS centres addressing the nutritional needs of the community’s children, thus working as a preventive and curative remedy to ensure no child of the community is malnourished. Like this community, we need robust, effectively implemented policies that can ensure that we have a healthy, nourished citizenry.
Vijaylakshmi Arora is Director – Policy and Research, Child Rights and You (CRY).