Government of India has recently released the data of the first round of National Family Health Survey-5, 2019-20. According to the released data, the rate of malnutrition in the country has increased as compared to the National Family Health Survey-4, 2015-16, which is a matter of great concern.
Malnutrition means that food is in short supply and lacks essential nutrients. Before the commencement of COVID-19, data for this round of survey were collected from 17 states and 5 union territories of the country. Major states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Telangana, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and some other states are included in the first round, but the data collection for the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and some other states had to be discontinued in March 2020 due to the pandemic and was resumed from November 2020.
The fact that the rate of malnutrition among children in the states surveyed in the first round exceeds the National Family Health Survey-4 indicates a bleak future for the country. Children are the future of the country, but how will they contribute to the development of the country in the absence of adequate and nutritious food.
According to the National Family Health Survey-5, in 13 out of 22 states and union territories, the percentage of children with stunted growth has increased. In the first round of the survey, Gujarat has 39 per cent of these children which is higher as compared to all other states and union territories. This percentage is 35 for Maharashtra,33.8 for West Bengal, 33.1 for Telaghana and 23.4 for Kerala.
These figures show that except Kerala in all these states around one-third of the children do not get the required adequate food. Gurajat’s development model has been propagated throughout the country, and it languishes at the bottom as per the data. Also, Kerala, a state while leading in terms of other human development indicators such as literacy and sex ratio has a high per cent of malnourished children. Every fifth child has stunted growth and 15.3 per cent of children are underweight in Kerala.
National Family Health Survey-5 has revealed that out of 22 states and union territories, in 12 children are underweight for their height, while in 16 children are underweight for their age. In the current survey, there is also an increase in the percentage of anaemic children. Malnutrition among children is on the rise in most of the states and union territories.
India has the highest percentage of underweight children in South Asia. Even in terms of malnutrition, India still stands out as one of the most undernourished dozen countries such as Ethiopia, Congo and others.
Malnutrition has devastating effects on children's health and all other aspects of their growth. As many as 60 per cent of child deaths in India are due to malnutrition as weaker children have very low immunity and as a result, these weak children are unable to fight with diseases. Also, in the early years of life, they lag behind other children in schooling and other activities.
An increase in the rate of malnutrition increases not only the infant mortality rate but also harms the overall development of the country.
These figures relate to the pre-pandemic period, and the trend for the phase of NFHS data collected after the COVID-19 might likely get even worse. During COVID-19, millions of people lost their jobs and migrant workers across the country faced severe food shortages that left pregnant women and children without access to adequate food with required nutrition, pointing to more alarming figures.
A survey by Hunger Watch has revealed that members of poor families have reported that they now eat less nutritious food than before the lockdown. These malnutrition figures also highlight the weakness of claims that indicate that the government has much more food than the requirement of the population of the country and that it provides food to the poor as required. The abundance of food and other essential commodities in the market or the country alone can not fill the stomachs of the people unless they have the required purchasing power.
Unemployment in the country is rising day by day. According to the government's figures, the present unemployment rate in the country is the highest during the last 45 years. On the other hand, the prices of essential commodities are also rising due to which nutrients in the diet of the common people are declining. The politics on cheap meat in recent years may also have reduced the amount of nutrients in poor people’s diet.
Malnutrition has deep roots in our country. Malnutrition and gender disparity interact in patriarchal societies and female children have fewer chances to make up for nutritional deficiencies. In most cases, girls are discriminated against boys in the availability of food as well as other aspects. Girls are given less nutritious food, which makes them anaemic and weak. As a result, these girls when grow up to be mothers give birth to vulnerable children.
National Family Health Survey-5 depicts a picture of the government's indifference to children. This survey captures data of the first five years of NDA government. In 2014-15, Rs. 13000 crore were provided for mid-day meals which had been reduced to Rs. 11000 crore in 2019-20, which in all likelihood has increased the rate of malnutrition.
The health sector's share in the country's budget is not in the line with the needs of the people. During the period 2008-09 to 2019-20, only 1.2 to 1.6 per cent of the GDP has been spent on health services by the central and state governments, which need to be increased. Instead of reducing this amount in every successive budget, it should be increased because the population of the country is increasing continuously.
Nutritious food items such as eggs, milk, fruits etc. should be included in the mid-day meal. Anganwadi workers who are in charge of enhancing the nutrition of women and children across the country continue to remain severely underpaid. They should be reasonably paid and their working conditions improved so they can take good care of the anganwadi children.
To make the health services efficient, the government should appoint a sufficient number of doctors, nurses and para-medical staff. Required medicine should be properly provided to pregnant women so that they can give birth to healthy babies.
The government should pay proper attention to the upbringing of children and make a foresighted plan for it and implement it seriously. Children are the foundations of a country. So, the development of a country can happen only if the children are healthy and fit. To create a better future for the children of the country, a prerequisite for the government is to adopt a pro-people economic model instead of the pro-corporate model.
Dr Gurinder Kaur is Professor at Punjabi University, Patiala.