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International Headlines, Domestic Problems: India And Hunger Issues

According to the NHFS, 42 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have a low body mass index (BMI), while 54 per cent have anaemia.

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After criticism from several quarters of the society including the opposition for poor ranking in the Global Hunger Index, the Indian government termed the methodology used in the GHI report as 'unscientific.'

However, the result of the fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (NHFS) by the Government of India conducted 2019-20 is not different. The findings of the report were released in December 2020, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. According to the survey, chronic malnutrition has increased in 11 out of the 17 states surveyed. 

Wasting, indicative of acute malnutrition has also increased in 13 of 17 states surveyed. The report underlined that children with such malnutrition are more vulnerable to illness and disease. The percentage of underweight children increased in 11 of the 17 states. Talking about the state of Bihar and Gujarat, the report said that 40 per cent of children under the age of five were underweight.

"We think that the government needs to start talking about solutions based on what the evidence shows. NHFS data clearly shows that malnutrition is a problem in India and an acute one. Mothers are married too young and are themselves chronically malnourished," said the Lead of Research and Knowledge Building at Oxfam India, Varna Sri Raman. 

According to the NHFS, 42 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 have a low body mass index (BMI), while 54 per cent have anaemia.  

"OXFAM has always believed that issues of nutrition are intimately tied with issues of public health, food choices, availability, access limited by caste and class, education and more. At the centre of India’s food security and nutrition crisis is poor policy that does not look at the long-term consequences of where we are headed," said Raman. 

While talking about Prime Minister Modi government stand on the GHI report, Raman said that the GHI is an index that is an amalgamation of different indicators (wasting, stunting, height, weight and malnutrition in this case) and data sources based on certain weights judgments. To that extent, it is subjective but definitely not unscientific. "The methodology of the index is open and available and its indicators, for India, are based on robust and representative government-led on-ground surveys, one of which is the National Family Health Survey (NHFS)," said Raman. 

Raman further said that the centrepiece of the government’s accusations of the GHI’s incorrect methodology is that the pandemic period is not included and government efforts to provide food during the pandemic period have not been acknowledged. "However,  NHFS data shows that the nutritional crisis predates the pandemic i.e. the data round pertains to the second half of 2019 only and excludes states such as UP, MP, Punjab and Jharkhand which saw huge death tolls in the second wave," said Raman. 

In the last few years, India has witnessed stunning growth, as Gross Domestic Product has increased along with per capita consumption. Similarly, food grain production has increased almost 2 times. Despite steady industrial and economic growth, it is not able to provide access to food to a large number of people, especially women and children.

Raman believes that the social determinants of nutrition and health need to be looked at as a whole. Some of the areas that need urgent attention are mothers’ nutrition, anaemia, low weight and consequential low birth-weight babies, meal diversity, food security and so on. 

"There are massive negative consequences to not arresting high levels of malnutrition. In India, both our adult population and our children are at risk. For instance, the BMI of a quarter of our (teenage and middle-aged) women is below the standard global norm, more than half of our women suffer from anaemia and a quarter of our (teenage and middle-aged) men show signs of iron and calcium deficiencies as per the latest round of NHFS data," he said. 

The budget this year discussed India’s POSHAN scheme with “increased” allocations to Poshan 2.0, however the POSHAN Abhiyaan that was launched in 2017 to improve nutrition among children, pregnant women and lactating mothers has only languished due to poor funding resulting from clever clubbing with other schemes within the health-budget and even worse implementation, Raman mentioned 

Only 0.57 per cent of the current budget has been allocated toward funding the actual Poshan scheme and the amount for child nutrition dropped by a whopping 18.5 per cent compared to 2020-21, indicated figures.  "If the current status of nutrition of our citizenry is worsening and the outcomes for public health are poor this will cascade into a poor family and labour-market outcomes for the whole population," said Raman.

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