Opinion

Threat of malnourishment

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on December 10, 2020 Published on December 10, 2020

School closure has deprived children of midday meals

Despite claims of robust economic growth in recent years, the country’s social development indicators are nothing to be proud of. If anything, our nutrition record is an embarrassment. The poor nutrition status, as reflected in pervasive malnutrition and under-nutrition — acute protein and calorie deficiency — among large sections of the financially-challenged population, is well-recognised.

Internationally, poverty-line is measured as income of at least $1.90 a day that is about ₹150 a day at the current exchange rate. In a report published last year, the United Nations estimated the number of poor people in India at a humongous 364 million, which is 28 per cent of the population.

That there is widespread under-nutrition among the poor sections is well-recognised. While several factors contribute to malnutrition, lack of hygiene, inadequate healthcare and limited access to daily supplies of nutritious food deserve attention.

Now, the situation has been worsened by the novel coronavirus pandemic that has unleashed an unprecedented medical, social and economic catastrophe. Even as the country is gradually unlocking and economic activities are gradually picking up, school children have been affected the most.

UNICEF report

According to a Unicef report, closure of 1.5 million schools means that 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary education as well as 28 million children who are attending pre-school education in anganwadi (daycare) centres are affected.

These children run greater risk of facing childhood malnutrition. Cases of wasting and acute malnutrition may rise. Close to 12 per cent of reported Covid-19 infections are among children and adolescents under 20 years of age, Unicef has pointed out.

To be sure, over the last 20 years or so, per capita protein consumption has actually declined from the levels seen in the mid-1980s. Worse, there is a skew in consumption among sections of the population based on income levels. The poor have limited access to protein-rich food.

Protein deficiency has serious implications, especially given the age profile of the Indian population. Low protein intake has long-term adverse effects on human health, labour productivity and general well-being.

Perpetual under-nutrition results in low resistance to infections and increased morbidity, invariably raising healthcare costs.

Stark variations

Across the country, there are stark inter-State variations in the extent of under-nutrition. States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are home to the largest number of under-nourished people.

Therefore, the bigger picture is that tens of millions of families in different geographies of the country who are on the borderline of poverty are joining the ranks of the poor and facing the spectre of poverty.

To stay afloat, that is, to stay barely above the poverty-line, those on the borderline need to find jobs and earn incomes. At the same time, children must continue to receive nutritious food on a daily basis.

No doubt, the government has implemented a massive welfare programme called the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana as part of which free ration of rice/wheat and pulses was distributed among vulnerable families. The scheme, started in April this year for three months, was extended till November for various reasons.

Now that the welfare programme has come to an end but economic activity is nowhere near the pre-Covid levels, the fate (nutritional status) of tens of millions hangs in balance. It is critical that poor people including school children continue to receive adequate nutritional support. It is a humanitarian crisis and to fight it extraordinary political will is necessary.

The writer is a senior journalist and policy commentator. Views are personal

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Published on December 10, 2020
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