The latest Unicef survey ranks India as the 12th worst country among 52 low and middle income nations based on the number of children who die in the first month of birth. There are many reasons for this but high on the list is underweight babies.
The recent Urban HUNGaMA— the first-of-its kind-report which captured the nutritional status of children in 10 most populous cities of India —revealed that even in urban India, which was supposed to fare better, one out of four children(25%) is stunted. Delhi, the capital of India’s billion plus people, with wealth and power written all over its, leads the list with 30% of its children stunted.
The fight against malnutrition needs to become a social movement and not just left to the government. For it also involves the market, companies, families, community and schools, given the kind of junk food that is now being forced down our children’s throats in the name of “modernity” and “development”. Go to any slum in Delhi and Mumbai (Mumbai tops the list of cities with the highest number of children with low weight for their height), and you will find many mothers relying on packaged noodles as the staple diet for their children.
The Modi government has cleared the constitution of a National Nutrition Mission, which the PM was going to kick off last month in Jhunjhunu, but for some reason it was deferred. But to have an impact, if truth be told, it needs the Prime Minister’s “political capital” behind it, as he has done with Swachh Bharat, toilet construction, Start Up India, Digital India, Skilled India, or the Ujjwala scheme. The Niti Ayog sending a six monthly progress report to the PMO is not the same thing as the Nutrition Mission being put directly under the Prime Minister, with the PMO tracking the roll out and progress of schemes.
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If the problem is endemic in the country’s tribal districts, could the chief ministers of high burden districts consider relocating their headquarters in these districts, say, for a month in a year so as to shake-up a soporific system? While this is bound to galvanise the official machinery, the CM can spend his time just listening to people about their problems.
So far the problem of malnutrition has been essentially addressed at the level of the integrated child development services (ICDS), and is prescriptive in nature. Has the time now come when we need to scale up its preventive aspect—and look at adolescent girls as a group, where the story really begins? Their nutritional neglect as girls, their lack of education, their early marriage, their high levels of anaemia, their own underweight, leading to the underweight babies they go on to deliver, and above all, to the non-recognition of their dreams and aspirations.
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Adolescent girls are a group no politician has reached out to. And yet they represent a huge and untapped potential. If harnessed, it could transform India, and make the 21st century belong to young women. It could also ensure that the children they deliver do not die in the first month of life, but enjoy health and vigour, which is their birthright. Mr Prime Minister, are you listening?