Transform Nutrition, Transform India

Transform Nutrition, Transform India

Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken about many social issues in the last three years either in his Mann Ki Baat or from the ramparts of the Red Fort, from where he had in 2014 first flagged off the idea of toilets for girls and of Swachh Bharat.

Last week, probably for the first time, he singled out the problem of malnutrition as an issue to be addressed.  He was expressing his dissatisfaction with the work being done by the scientific community. Urging them to do more to solve the country’s problems, the only issue he mentioned in this regard – and obviously gave primacy to- was “malnutrition”.

Even more interesting, the Prime Minister linked malnutrition to adolescent health—which is emerging as a key factor in addressing child malnutrition.  Scientists, the Prime Minister said, had to become a bridge between research and society. It is they who had to ensure that, for instance, a 15 year old girl who would become a mother tomorrow, knows today all that she needed to, about nutrition.

It is widely known that Indian malnutrition figures are worse than those in sub-Saharan Africa, despite India being a growing economy and a parliamentary democracy. This, experts say, is because   underweight mothers deliver underweight babies in India. Hence, the Prime Minister’s emphasis on adolescent girls.

The worrying levels of anemia among adolescent girls, their lack of access to education, or say in decision making, be it what they should eat, when they should marry,  when they should have their first child, the spacing of children, all have a bearing on their health and wellbeing.

Interestingly enough, a month ago, Sonia Gandhi too had mentioned the need to address malnutrition, in her speech at the relaunch of the National Herald in the capital. Again, Sonia Gandhi has spoken about many issues but rarely about malnutrition as a critical problem.

From time to time, politicians have talked about the problem. Dr Manmohan Singh described it a “national shame” from the ramparts of the Red Fort. He had set up a Nutrition Council under him but it met only twice during his entire term. Dr. Pranab Mukherji referred to it in the opening paragraph of one of his Budget speeches when he was Finance Minister. Younger MPs across parties have tried to give the issue a higher profile.  But it has not been addressed in a mission mode.

While India has made progress and this is borne out by the figures in the National Family Health Survey 4, which showed a decline in the levels of malnutrition, this is not good enough—not, if four out of ten children under five remain stunted. These figures are not good enough for a country which dreams about effecting a major transformation and becoming a regional or a world power in the future.

The fact is that combating malnutrition is probably the most important issue to address today. For the simple reason that if we lose the battle in the first two years of life—given  the damage that can be done  to a child’s cognitive abilities, brain development, productivity as an adult,  and this can be  irreversible-  then the future of India would be grim.

The nutrition community is aware of its import.  But unfortunately, there has been a  disconnect between the nutrition community and policy makers.  That is why the Prime Minister’s words to the scientists could not be more welcome.

Scientists in Bangladesh in a recent study had found that compared to non-stunted infants, stunted babies had  “volumes of smaller grey matter”, associated with learning, language, and memory problems. Today malnutrition is seen as a problem affecting brain development—and aspiration fulfilment—and not just about food.

In his Mann ki Baat last Sunday, honorable Prime Minister said the next five years in India must be as transformational for the country, as were the years between 1942-47, which had culminated in India’s freedom. For that to happen, the problem of malnutrition will need an urgent attention, in the next five years, of a kind it has not received so far. For, clearly India’s future depends on it.

Neerja Chowdhury

Political Commentator & Transform Nutrition Champion

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