India is staring at an acute malnutrition crisis. It can be attributed to the fatigued health structures, food availability, and the haunting high status of malnutrition. To add to the woes economic crisis created by COVID-19 pandemic has completely made the status quo uncontrollable. UNICEF in its report has warned that a staggering, 1.2 million additional children under five could die in just six months in low and middle-income countries due to reduction in routine health services coverage and increased in child wasting. Of this, one of the largest death tolls could be borne by India, projected to touch 3 lakhs.”
Understanding Malnutrition in India
India happens to be one of the largest producers of food in the world but ironically the country remains one of the most malnourished nations. While India is experiencing a low weight and height in infants, it ranks second in the incidence of low birth weight (LBW) among south Asian countries. This is an indication of a hard-hitting fact that a child suffers from malnutrition even before they are born.
While poverty remains the primary cause of hunger and malnutrition in India, other factors further poor people’s marginalisation and force them into malnourishment. Climate change has affected countries agriculture fields and from the past few years, the country has witnessed a massive migration of farmers from rural to urban areas in search of employment. The number of migrants exceeds cities’ threshold forcing people into more poverty. Hence, building resilience against natural disasters constitutes an important step towards the eradication of hunger in the nation.
Role of Anganwadi workers
An Anganwadi worker is the first to identify a malnutrition child in rural India. “We go door to door and examine children, mothers and other adults. We make sure to do regular visits to pregnant mothers and follow up after delivery as well,” says Sunena Devi, 49 years old Anganwadi worker in Satpahari village, Jharkhand.
“Most of the households here are not aware of what a protein-based diet is, they are hardly focused on providing essential nutrients to their family members and themselves and hence malnutrition in rural areas is an old problem,” says Sumitra Devi as 46-year-old Anganwadi worker in Gonda, Jharkhand. Sumitra Devi also says how the COVID-19 lockdown changed the existing food habits of many families in villages due to unavailability of food items, and hence will result in increasing malnutrition.
COVID-19 and Nutrition Resource Centers
Ritubai, a mother to a 1-year-old son Neeraj and 3 years old daughter Neelam, was found to be anaemic and malnourished with a weight of 42 kgs by the local Aganwadi workers. She along with her son were referred to Nutrition Rehabilitation Center (NRC) catering to Navalpura village of district Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh. Staying in the institution her health improved and so did her son’s. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that they would not get caught in the web of malnutrition again. As the access to food and nutrition is still a dream for many.
The COVID 19 situation has taken a toll on this much-needed support mechanism for a large number of women and children suffering from malnutrition. Anganwadi workers are engaged in preventing COVID pandemic. And NRCs are not fully functional. The loss of livelihood and income, and recent floods in large part India has crippled the economy. It would have an alarming impact on health status.
Will malnutrition haunt India for a long time or are there some micro changes that can lead to a systemic revolution? Many organisations, governmental schemes, individuals are trying to work towards it but none of these can work in isolation. There needs to be a concerted effort into eradication malnutrition from the country.
Contributed by: Nawal Watali