The recently released Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2017 by the International Food Policy Research Institute paints a grim picture of a country with the second largest and one of the fastest growing population. India ranks 100 out of 119 countries in GHI, which is worse than its last year rank of 97 out of 118. GHI looks at undernourishment, child mortality rate, child stunting and wasting to determine the status of nutrition, and India performs poorly on all fronts. India now comes under most African and Middle Eastern Nations and is one of the worst performing Asian nation (only little above Pakistan and Afghanistan).
Child malnutrition rates in India are one of the worst in the world. The disadvantage is set from the beginning. Due to poor nutrition during pregnancy babies are often born underweight to malnourished mothers. Poverty is compounded by gender bias and women and girls are often fed last and scantiest in many households. Moreover, lack of information often means that even when there is enough food in the household the diets are often poorly designed lacking in essential nutrients.
Rise of infectious diseases due to poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water, with low vaccination rates means that children often suffer from chronic diarrhoea or worms preventing the absorption of nutrients. Overcrowded slums with migrant populations are most vulnerable to this. This is often a vicious cycle as malnourished children are again more vulnerable to infectious diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Undernourishment can have momentous development delays in the population both in terms of physical and mental health. This can not only impact well being of the citizens but also cost country its economic growth. Undernourished workers will perform poorly, will often be sick, have lower productivity and incur greater hospital costs. This will trap them into poverty and debts.
Hunger and nutrition is a vital policy issue and in fact UPA brought in many schemes and legislations to counter the growing problem of malnutrition.
It is believed that UPA’s significant legislations like mid day meal scheme, MNREGA, emphasis on anganwadis in schools and the food security act had done a lot to ameliorate hunger and malnutrition in India. Also those years gave stable economic growth, with increase in wage income due to MNREGA and other anti poverty policies that were the thrust of UPA’s social welfare agenda. In fact the prevalence of underweight children had come down from 49.2 percent in 1990 to 30 percent in 2013.
Recently several factors have contributed to increase in income poverty and resultant hunger. Economy has been on a downward spiral and demonetisation further created a cash crunch particularly in the rural agricultural and informal urban sectors. States like Madhya Pradesh, faring extremely poorly on nutrition, have objected to egg on the menu of ICDS. Moreover there have been controversies over beef consumption. With droughts in several regions and consequent farmer distress, poverty and food consumption has been further impacted.
Tackling hunger needs a multipronged strategy. Hunger is not solely dependent on income, as countries with lower per capita than India have done better on nutrition. One has to start with basics like better wages, a good public distribution system, improvement in sanitation through ensuring toilets and clean drinking water, better immunisation and a responsive public health system. Curbing food waste through better storage and transportation, ensuring fair price to farmers for produce and well equipped food banks for emergency and disaster situations are a must.
Such a high rate of hunger is unfortunate and quite ironical for a nation that is trying to project itself as a global leader and fastest growing economy. Glaring contrast and misplaced priorities are not new for India. Recently it witnessed announcement of bullet train and tragedy on Elphinstone railway bridge in the same month. Incidentally as India battles hunger, obesity and cardio vascular diseases are also on the rise. However if the nation is unable to feed its citizens after seven decades of independence then it must hang its head in shame.
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