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Malnutrition Is Real, Despite The Fuzzy Numbers

20/01/2015 8:09 AM IST | Updated 27/06/2016 9:54 PM IST
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NOAH SEELAM via Getty Images
Indian children eat their mid-day meal at an Government High School in Hyderabad, on January 10, 2012. Levels of under-nutrition in the country were 'unacceptably high' despite impressive GDP growth, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on January 10, 2012 and added that the problem of malnutrition was a 'national shame'. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

"There is an enormous amount of worthy scholarship in India and elsewhere about poverty and hunger, to which economists, nutritionists and public planners contribute. It is important in all of this to be continuously mindful that one does not reduce people living with hunger to statistical ammunition, subjecting their intense suffering and valiant resistance only to cold economics of costs and benefits, and the calculus of calories."- Harsh Mander, Ash in the Belly

India has moved up the malnutrition ladder, according to the recent Global Hunger Index (GHI) we now rank 55th among 76 other emerging economies. The hunger situation has changed from alarming to 'serious'. The Global Hunger Index is calculated via a simple average of three indicators, which include proportion of undernourished people as a percentage of the population, prevalence of underweight children under five and mortality rate among children under five. Therefore, a lower GHI score implies better nutritional standard and also means a higher rank for the country. The government may have heaved a sigh of relief at the improved ranking, yet it is fervently hoped that all forms of malnutrition and hunger in general remains high on the government's agenda. India faces the dubious distinction of suffering from not just malnutrition, but also under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, also known as hidden hunger, which supposedly affects around two billion people globally. Hidden hunger stands for the chronic deficiency of essential vitamins and minerals and can have serious lifelong impact on all aspects of health, reproduction and even mental growth. Thus, despite the supposed upgrading in the report, India still remains home to 25 million children (under five years of age) who fall under the wasted and stunted category.

While such hunger indices give us some insight into understanding hunger, it needs to be viewed from various dimensions including understanding the incidence of hunger in the first place. It also requires an intense assessment of true and actual anthropometric data on stunted children and should ideally reflect the interstated disparities, inherent geographical variations and of course role of gender. We need to also acknowledge that the most authentic data source on the prevalence of malnutrition is eight-years-old, and we still tend to report that same old data.

Our work over the last three decades with marginalised communities teaches us that malnutrition cannot be treated in a few days or even a few months. It takes almost two years for the child to get back on track. During this period, there is a need to provide livelihood support for communities which includes food, nutrition and health support for the child and the mother (often an adolescent young mother), establishment of Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres, that provide the critical inputs be it food, medicines, counselling that the family desperately needs, and tracking every child that needs care. Effective results can be sought only when the whole community is on board with the issue, be it parents, teachers, anganwadi workers etc., and there is adequate support from the government. Regaining lost ground in the battle against malnutrition needs sustained efforts and resolute will on the part of the government. The fight against malnutrition is not just fuzzy numbers but about actually putting an end to real, gut wrenching hunger amongst our very own.

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