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Whither India's 'goal' of brighter future? NHFS-5 data: child malnutrition goes up

By Dr Gurinder Kaur*

The data of the first round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 (2019-20) has recently been released by Union Health Minister Harshvardhan. According to the released data, the rate of malnutrition in the country has increased as compared to the NFHS, which is a matter of great concern. Malnutrition means that food is in short supply and lacks essential nutrients.
Before the commencement of Covid-19, data for this round of survey were collected from 17 states and five union territories of the country. Major states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, West Bengal,Gujarat, Telangana,Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and some other states are included in the first round.
But the data collection for the states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and some other states was resumed from November 2020, which had to be discontinued in March 2020 due to Covid-19.
The fact that the rate of malnutrition among children in the states surveyed in the first round exceeds NFHS-4 indicates a bleak future for the country. Children are the future of the country, but how will they contribute to the development of the country if they do not get the required adequate and nutritious food?
According to NFHS-5, in 13 out of 22 states and union territories, the percentage of children with stunted growth has increased. In the first round of the survey, Gujarat had 39 percent of these children which is higher as compared to all other states and union territories. This percentage is 35 for Maharashtra, 33.8 for West Bengal, 33.1 for Telangana and 23.4 for Kerala.
Gujarat is a state whose model has been propagated across the country. These figures show that except Kerala in all these states around one-third of the children do not get required food. Even in a state like Kerala, every fifth child has stunted growth and 15.3 per cent of children are underweight, while it is leading in terms of other human development indicators such as literacy and sex ratio.
NFHS-5 has revealed that out of 22 states and 12 union territories, in 12 children are underweight for their height while in 16 children are underweight for their age. In the current survey there is also an increase in the percentage of anemic children.
Malnutrition among children is on rise in most of the states and union territories. India has a higher percentage of underweight children in South Asia. Even in terms of malnutrition, India still stands out as one of the most undernourished country of a dozen countries such as Ethiopia, Congo and other countries.
Malnutrition has devastating effects on children's health and all other aspects of their growth. As many as 60 per cent of child deaths in India due to malnutrition as weaker children have very low immunity and as a result these weak children are unable to fight with diseases.
In addition, in the early years of life, they lag behind other children in schooling and other activities. An increase in the rate of malnutrition not only increases the infant mortality rate but also has a negative impact on the overall development of the country.
Gujarat is a state whose model has been propagated across the country. Figures show that except Kerala in other states around one-third of the children do not get required food
One fact that deserves special attention is that these figures relate to the pre-pandemic period. During Covid-19, millions of people lost their jobs and migrant workers across the country faced severe food shortages that left pregnant women and children without access to adequate food with required nutrition, making later figures more alarming.
A survey by Hunger Watch has revealed that members of poor families have reported they now eat less nutritious food than before the lockdown.These malnutrition figures also highlight the weakness of those claims which indicates that the government has much more food than the requirement of the population of the country and provides food to the poor as required.
The abundance of food and other essential commodities in the market or the country alone cannot fill the stomachs of the people unless they have required purchasing power. Unemployment in the country is rising day by day. According to the government's own figures, the present unemployment rate in the country is highest during the last 45 years. 
On the one hand unemployment is on rise while on the other the prices of essential commodities are also rising due to which nutrients in the diet of the common man are declining. The politics on cheap meat in recent years may also have reduced the amount of nutrients in the diet of the poor.
Malnutrition has deep roots in our country. Being a patriarchal society, in most cases girls are being discriminated against by boys in the availability of food as well as other aspects. Girls are given less nutritious food which makes them anemic and weak.As a result, these girls give birth to vulnerable children when they become mothers.
NFHS-5 clearly depicts a picture of the government's indifference to children. This survey captures data of the first five years of NDA government. In 2014-15, Rs 13,000 crore were provided for mid-day meal which has been reduced to Rs 11,000 crore in 2019-20 which is likely to increase the rate of malnutrition.
The health sector's share in the country's budget is not in the line with the needs of the people.During the period 2008-09 to 2019-20 ,only 1.2 to 1.6 per cent of the GDP has been spent on health services by the Central and State Governments which needs to be increased. Instead of reducing this amount in every successive budget,it should be increased because the population of the country is increasing every year.
Nutritious food items such as eggs, milk,fruits etc. should be included in the mid-day meal. Anganwadi workers should be paid in full so that can take good care of the children. If they are not paid enough to meet their needs, they will not be able to pay full attention to the anganwadi children.
To make the health services efficient the government should appoint sufficient number of doctors, nurses and para-medical staff. Required medicine should be properly provided to the pregnant women so that they can give birth to healthy babies.
The government should pay proper attention to the upbringing of children and make a foresighted plan for it and implement it seriously. Children are the foundations of a country. The development of a country can happen only if the children are healthy and fit. In order to create a better future for children of the country, a prerequisite for the government is to adopt a pro-people economic model instead of the pro-corporate model.
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*Professor, department of geography, Punjabi University,Patiala

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