Hunger Games

The real measure of a country’s progress is the child hunger index. India continues to fall short.

In this season of festivities, when urban lifestyle-based diseases are getting a boost as we stuff our stomachs with forbidden foods, and our homes eat up even more of scarce electricity, one in every third child will go to bed hungry. Her home will be dark, without even the light from the hearth that cannot be lit because there is no cooking fuel.

Hunger, malnutrition, under-nutrition… these are not the talking points at election rallies or television debates but they remain a hard and unrelenting reality for million of Indians. I fear that — in the drummed-up euphoria surrounding cleaning up India, making in India and other such slogans — this depressing reality will be obscured and forgotten.

The good news, we are told, is that acute hunger is decreasing. On the Global Hunger Index 2014, prepared by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), India now ranks 55th of the 76 countries and its situation has moved from ‘alarming’ to ‘serious’. That is good. But is it something to celebrate? That from 45.1 per cent of underweight children under five years of age in 2005-06, there are now 30.7 per cent of underweight children as of last year? It is progress, but that still leaves virtually one in every three children under five years of age that is underweight. This means this child will never be able to catch up as an adult because she has been deprived of adequate and nutritious food in the first five years of her life.

We should also be worried that the very programmes that helped this decline are now in danger of being neglected, or reformulated in a way that could prove detrimental. For instance, IFPRI acknowledges that government programmes that have contributed to this decline in child hunger are the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) under which balwadis in villages provide young children with a nutritious supplement; the committee to monitor malnutrition set up by the Supreme Court; the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) that has increased access to health care for many in rural areas; the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which has guaranteed employment to millions of people; and the Public Distribution System (PDS), which provides subsidised food grains to people below the poverty line.

Apart from hunger caused by inadequate quantity of food, millions also suffer from hidden hunger, due to the deficiency of micronutrients in the food. If you are poor, not only do you get little to eat, but what you eat is also of poor quality. This is what aggravates the already deadly impact of undernutrition. Whenever these subjects come up for discussion — and internationally and in India they do so all the time — there are many technical fixes that are discussed such as bio-fortification, which involves increasing the micronutrient content of food crops. In other words, the same grain that you eat will be fortified so that even if you eat the same quantity, you will get more nutrients into your system.

While all that is well-meant, if you are poor, you need money to buy food, even if it is subsidised. And you need work to earn the money to buy that food. Despite its shortcomings, MGNREGA has been responsible for putting that money in the hands of millions of rural poor. Yet, this programme is being deprived of funds and could end up a mere acronym.

The technical fixes also misfire because the approach is sometimes top-down without taking in the particular needs of different parts of India. For instance, one of the solutions for malnutrition among children is to give them a high-energy protein paste, that includes crushed peanuts, through the ICDS programme. But the solution, although it makes sense, does not take into account the fact that children’s tastes and eating habits differ in various parts of India. Or that severely malnourished children — like those in isolated tribal hamlets in some parts of Maharashtra, for instance — cannot digest this rich mixture because they are so emaciated. Rather than giving them nourishment, the mixture can cause acute diarrhoea. So, universalised solutions do not work if there is no flexibility built into such programmes.

Just as a handful of long-handled brooms will not clean India, there is no magic wand for ending hunger. The real measure of a country’s progress should surely be the child hunger index. And here India continues to fall short. Moving from ‘alarming’ to ‘serious’ is simply not good enough.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com