A trip to the north Indian village Ghaseda less than 100 kilometers from the capital New Delhi was sufficient to find out why India is inept in addressing the problem of malnutrition.
In the early morning on a winter day outside the Anganwadi (rural child care center) around 40 children were hanging around for the gates to be opened. They spend their day in the center while their parents are out to work.
It was a day to weigh the children to check the status of malnutrition cases in the village. One-and-half-year-old Sanna was the first one as she is malnourished.
“Her weight has gone down further. She is now weighing less than five kilos. Have you not been taking care of your child?”, shouts in-charge of the center known as Sharda.
She scolded Rasida, Sanna’s mother for not taking care of her.
“You see this is a major problem. We can take care of the child till he or she is in the center, but we cannot go to their houses to look after the children. Parents will also have to share the responsibility. Look at Sanna, she is the 12th child to her parents. They both work in the fields as laborers. And there is no one to take care of her a whole day. Her elder sister lugs her around the village till the parents come home,” she added.
There are about 1.35 million such centers operational all over India. They are the first checkpoint to monitor malnutrition.
Government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) program is also linked to these centers to provide food, preschool education, and primary healthcare to children under the age of six and their mothers.
Children are fed breakfast and lunch at these centers, but there are issues with the quality and frequency.
Savita Yadav, another Anganwadi in-charge complained about the lack of supply of proper food items.
“Today we had to give puri and sabzi (Indian meal) for breakfast, but we have had no cooking oil supply for many months. How will we prepare that? So we have to make do with rice and lentils.”
But the village head Ashraf Khan complains of corruption.
“How can we get rid of malnutrition when most of these centers sell off the food items they receive to be distributed to the kids?”
According to the Global Nutrition Report 2018, more than 46 million children in India are stunted. One of the main factors is that the inter-generational cycle of under-nutrition is passed on from mothers to children.
Experts also count many other factors including poor implementation of nutrition programs.
Soha Moitra, Director of Child Rights and You, said: “There are many issues we have to combat on the ground. There is a lack of convergence between different government departments, and the staff is not properly trained. There are issues of caste and gender which comes to play. An Anganwadi worker being a higher class refuses to give food to a lower caste child in a village. So you see there are many layers of problems in the smooth running of the centers.”
While efforts are being made, experts are now asking if it is time to relook at the ways India is handling its children. Srishti Jain, COO of Feeding India, an organization fighting hunger in the country, said: “Conventionally the government centers have been giving some food items according to prescribed quantity and calorie intake, but now we have to move beyond that. What we see as the next steps are adding more nutrients to the existing meal and making it a balanced meal. We have to look at ways to fortify existing nutrients.”
This year the government has started another new mission called National Nutrition Mission with the vision to ensure attainment of malnutrition free India by 2022.
It seems schemes and programs to make India malnutrition free are in place but what is lacking is a political will to understand the gravity of the situation and to make the solutions work on the ground.