It is ironic that India which has surplus foodgrain stocks is home to an alarmingly large number of malnourished children
The findings of the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) have a grim yet familiar ring to them. They essentially highlight the seriousness of the problem of malnutrition among children in India and must prompt the government to take a relook at the present strategies. The survey has revealed a rise in underweight and severely wasted under-5 children among 22 States. This was despite marked improvements in sanitation and better access to fuel and drinking water. The data pertains to the first phase of the survey covering 17 States and five Union Territories and captures the state of health in these States before the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation would have further worsened now. Several States have either witnessed meagre improvements or sustained reversals, compared with the levels prevalent about five years ago, on malnutrition of children under 5 years of age across parameters like child stunting, underweight and child wasting (low weight for height). The most worrying reversals have happened in child stunting, which reflects chronic undernutrition, and refers to the percentage of children who have low height for their age. Stunting, more than other factors, is likely to have long-lasting adverse effects on the cognitive and physical development of a child. Improving capacities of anganwadis is one of the ways to improve the country’s woeful record in addressing malnutrition. Food fortification using the massive Public Distribution System (PDS) can be an effective and scalable solution to the problem of micronutrient deficiencies.
India’s success at addressing iodine deficiency shows that this can be achieved at a large scale for other micronutrients as well. This can be carried out through the PDS which provides one of the crucial ways to reach citizens across the country as witnessed during the pandemic. The government should extend it to all citizens and not just ration cardholders as there is a need to expand its coverage, especially since the Food Corporation of India (FCI) reported surplus foodgrain stocks. The food basket under the National Food Security Act should also move away from its current overemphasis on cereals to more diversified foods that are nutrient-rich to tackle malnourishment as this will ensure equitable access to a more balanced diet and promote nutritional security. It is ironic that a country which has surplus foodgrain stocks is home to an alarmingly large number of malnourished children. Despite rapid urbanisation and improved access to quality food, many children in India do not get the required nourishment. The ongoing pandemic has further worsened the situation with the supplemental nutrition schemes being slowed down in many States. The loss of incomes has aggravated the nutrition deficiency among people. This calls for urgent public health intervention to tide over the crisis.
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