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A Serious Problem:THREAT OF CHILD MALNUTRITION,by Radhakrishna Rao,20 April 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 20 April 2006

A Serious Problem


By Radhakrishna Rao

Notwithstanding the rapid strides in the economy, food production and health care, malnutrition continues to nag a large proportion of children in the sprawling Asian continent. Indeed, from the shanty towns in the capital city of New Delhi to the slum settlements of metro Manila in the Philippines, poverty continues to deprive nearly 600 million Asian children (half of the Continent’s population) of the much-needed nutrition, clean water, health care and sanitation.

As pointed out by Michael Diamond, Asia Director for Plan, a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) devoted to development, “What is happening in Asia is a catastrophe”. It’s programme includes making available loans to low- income families, health education to combat child killers such as malnutrition and malaria, and seeking to give female children greater access to education.

Though malnutrition need not be a ferocious killer like HIV/AIDS, it could nonetheless cause serious physical disorders and mental deficiencies among children. Worse, it can jeopardize the immune system and increase the vulnerability to serious ailments. 

Over half of the children in India suffer from malnutrition of varying degrees. A large proportion of the malnourished children are affected by protein energy malnutrition (PEM).  But then, as pointed by Dr. Abhay Bang, founder, Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health, which is active in backward tribal-dominated districts in Maharashtra, “malnutrition involves food, hunger and poverty, making it not just a medical issue but an emotive and political one as well.  The availability and distribution of food are political issues and are directly related to malnutrition, making hunger or malnutrition deaths almost exclusively a political issue.”

Malnutrition is difficult to prevent because one needs wider political policies that encompassssues of livelihood, employment and socio-cultural understanding.  Health interventions on the other hand are easier to put into action and can bring down child mortality rates. i

In a similar vein, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, architect of India’s Green Revolution and currently Chairman, Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) opines that malnutrition related to hunger is the result of poverty and lack of employment opportunities.  Whereas, Dr. G.S. Kush, who while working for the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) had made a significant contribution to the evolution of many high-yielding and disease-resistant rice strains, feels malnutrition is a serious global problem. He has highlighted the importance of bio-technology and germplasm improvement in alleviating the problem and for wider economic benefits, has suggested linkages between agriculture and nutrition to promote dietary changes and improved nutritional status.

However, experts point out that poverty-related malnutrition is at the root of many diseases, which when left untreated, claims the lives of malnourished children. What is more, thousands of Indian children go blind on account of deficiency of Vitamin A. 

In fact, the glaring deficiency of micro nutrients like Vitamin A, B and C is a major contributor to child malnutrition in the country. Though bins and granaries in the country are overflowing, those in need of food are simply not in a position to get it on time.   Therefore, creating the power to purchase sufficient amount of food on time is a major area of concern in fighting the problem of malnutrition.

Not surprisingly, developmental experts point out that spending money on food subsidies and supplies may not be the best and ideal option to blunt the edge of malnutrition haunting parts of the country. Rightly, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says: “One of the major blots is the survival in India of regular malnutrition – as distinct from acute starvation and families – in most parts of India. India’s self-sufficiency in food has to be assessed in the light of the limited purchasing power of the Indian masses. Their needs may be large, but then their entitlements are small; that the economy produces enough to meet their market demand is not in itself a gigantic achievement”. 

Taking cognizance of reports about pathetic death of children due to malnutrition in tribal areas of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court, last year had ordered both the Central and State governments to coordinate and decide on the number of Anganwadis needed to extend the ICDS (Integrated child Development Scheme) to cover all children in the State.  

In the face of indicting reports in a section of the press, the Maharashtra Government had to admit that 2,675 children died of malnutrition between April and July last year in tribal-dominated districts of Maharashtra. A report from the State Health Department revealed that 1,085 infants below one year and another 1,500 children up to the age of six had died of malnutrition during the same period. However, many NGOs working in these areas say that even after judicial intervention there has been no tangible effort to fight this menace of malnutrition in the tribal pockets of Maharashtra.

Prior to the intervention of the Bombay High Court, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice Tarun Chaterjee had said: “We are shocked at the attitude of the Central Government in respect of giving nutritious food to all children”. For many years now, ample light has been thrown on the callousness of the country’s political leadership, compounded by bureaucratic indifference, in tackling this growing problem of malnutrition amongst children.

As it is, a committee set up under the chairmanship of Dr. Bang had in its report submitted to the Union Government, driven home the point that steps need to be taken to extend the scope of ICDS to cover children up to the age of two, pregnant and breast- feeding mothers as well as adolescent girls. The report stressed that Anganwadis should serve as health care for children and mothers: “It was important to observe growing children and tackle poor growth instead of waiting for acute malnutrition to set in and then take action”.

Significantly, studies by NGOs working for tribal upliftment reveal that preventing tribals from accessing natural resources has also accentuated the problem of malnutrition. One such report by Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti, says that many children in areas submerged by the Sardar Sarovar multi-purpose project had died due to malnutrition. ---- INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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