There are many global indices released by various agencies at various points in time. Some bring cheers, some just pass by and some others result in debates; at times uproarious! Every October the Global Hunger Index (GHI) is released. It’s a tool that attempts to measure hunger globally; prepared by European NGOs “Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe”.
It’s 16 year old German and Irish organization that measures and ranks countries on the hunger Index. It does so at global, regional, and national levels. It does not go beyond that.
However, in a country like ours, we have regional disparities in all developmental parameters and therefore the existence of hunger-related disparities can not be ruled out within the country. Besides, GHI disproportionately focuses on a particular segment of the population i.e., on less than 05 years old children. Therefore, the stated objective of GHI to reduce hunger around the world is debatable.
The use of the word hunger sensationalizes the whole issue. It takes us back to the famine era when millions of people died of starvation. There were great famines in India; the great Bengal famine of 1770, and the India famine of 1899.
The most recent one was the Bengal famine of 1943 in which over 4 million people died. Famines in India have resulted in more than 30 million deaths in the 18th,19th, and 20th centuries.
Droughts combined with policy failures have periodically led to major Indian famines. The 1943 Bengal famine could have been avoided and/or its impact reduced substantially had the then-British government prioritized this catastrophe. Under the pretext of World War II, the responsibility to save lives was simply ignored. Famines in India largely ended after the Bengal famine of 1943. Even droughts have impacted the lives of millions of people in different parts of the country from time to time in the post-independence period the hardship was localized or confined to a particular area and Govt of the day has always come out with policy measures to mitigate the misery of people in such eventualities.
Of course, there have been sporadic reports in some parts of the country of abject poverty, mass emigration, child selling out of despair, deprivation, and despondency. We heard about one such incident about 04 decades ago in the Kalahandi district of Odisha.
Notwithstanding the above-stated nutrition, if not food, and particularly child nutrition continues to be an alarming issue. Our own institutions’ findings such as that of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW)- National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) provide comparative state-level data, including the main pointers that determine health and nutrition. These surveys are carried out every 4/5 years Some of the findings of NFHS-5, which captured the data during 2019-20 and has been conducted in around 6.1 lacs households, are as under:
Children’s nutrition: NFHS provides estimates of underweight, stunting, and wasting. Child Nutrition indicators show a slight improvement at all Indian levels. Stunting (low height for age) has marginally declined from 38 per cent to 36 per cent, wasting (low weight for height) has declined from 21 per cent to 19 per cent, and underweight from 36 per cent to 32 per cent at all India levels. These conditions affect preschool children (those less than 06 years of age) disproportionately and compromise a child’s physical and mental development. It also increases the vulnerability to infections. Besides, undernourished mothers give birth to deficient babies who are again susceptible to infections.
As per UNICEF findings, over a third of India’s children are stunted. We are a country with limited natural resources; land, water, minerals, and oil. But we have one endowment in abundance; our children. We have to fundamentally change how we treat the most vulnerable segment of our society; our children. The overall development of a human being is laid in early childhood; with health and education being the two most vital ingredients. If the foundation is not laid in early childhood any intervention later will not compensate for the deprivation in the early years.
Almost one dozen nutrition programs have been under implementation during the last 50 years. Mostly these food distribution programs benefit children; in the pre-school stage -Anganwadi or in the form of mid-day meal schemes. Also, expectant and lactating mothers are also included in these schemes. This must continue. At the same time newborns, infants and toddlers need special attention. We have successfully overcome many bigger health-related issues; smallpox, malaria, and polio. We have also succeeded in reducing maternal and child mortality substantially.
We should lose no more time debating over the GHI rankings. Instead, all our agencies should focus on the findings of NFHS to steer a new course to improve nutrition practices for our children. The fact remains that they are the most vulnerable section of society; they don’t belong to any trade union or pressure groups. Nor do they vote! We always say that our children are the future of this country. We are morally bound to take care of their present.