The Centre initiated a major breakthrough in its nutrition policy by paving the way for ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM). India being the home to one of the largest populations in the world also has a large number of children born below the poverty line who suffer from acute malnutrition as they do not have access to proper, hygienic and nutritious food. The results of malnourishment are several.
It can cause immediate fatality or it can also have harsh long-term effects with a reduced immune system, stunted growth, physical disabilities, mental retardation, cognitive disrepair, and hampered performance. In India, figures state that two out of five children are prone to suffer from malnutrition and thereby stunted growth. With malnutrition, children in India also face the problem of obesity, which is often a consequence of a dysfunctional metabolism that hasn't developed in tune with the body's growth—the result of a limited and incorrect proportion of nutrition being accessed at a nascent, growing age.
The Global Nutrition Report 2017 says that India has failed to make any progress in achieving the global goals of reducing malnutrition among children below five years and this has resulted in an abundance of underweight children and anaemic mothers. The lack of nutritious food making their way into the staples of new mothers and infants is jeopardising the Indian economy which is witnessing an unprecedented increase in the number of malnourished children who are growing with a compromised immune system and underdeveloped physical and mental attributes. Not only for children, the health and wellbeing of the new mothers also pose a challenge to the Indian economy. India has 17 crore women suffering from anaemia, compared to 9 crores in China and only 2.5 crores in Pakistan.
All of India's several successive governments have failed to put forth a comprehensive policy that would help eradicate this looming problem that threatens India's future. Maneka Gandhi, a frontrunner in securing privileges for women and children, had argued in the past for the need to propagate a malnutrition free India, at least by 2022. In a first step towards the right direction, she had argued for the use of pre-cooked meals that would replace the fresh meals provided at Anganwadi centres across rural India. However, her proposition only led to further confusion, as has been a longstanding tradition in India—several stakeholders, NGOs, policymaker and doctors put forth their perspectives for and against the idea. The take-home ration (THR) provided to newborn children under the Public Distribution system is known to be of a substandard quality, providing little respite to growing children who have the highest demands for nutrition and healthy food.
The introduction of RUTF is indeed a breakthrough in this battle against malnutrition, however, its impact on the lives of SAM children will heavily rely on the implementation of the facility. The government had so forth being ambiguous about the use of RUTF, stating that its viability could not be argued for. RUTF is often used interchangeably with pre-cooked meals, however the both differ greatly. RUTF is almost like medication, coming with a durability of four to six weeks these can recover children suffering from acute malnutrition by pulling them out of the clutches of the disease. These packages of food contain all the necessary nutrients that a child may require in their everyday growth that would prepare their system for adult life.
Those that have lobbied against the use of RUTF have emphasised that it would provide an impetus to MNCs and suppliers' lobbies to make undue profits and it has so far had only a 50 to 55 per cent success rate in reviving children who were hanging at the edge of malnutrition. The success rate, while not absolute, does provide some ray of hope, to India's estimated nine million children who are suffering from malnutrition. The government has made the right choice in allowing for the use of therapeutic food, as the escalating number of children suffering from malnutrition is jeopardising India's economy leading to the frail growth of thousands due to a simple lack of nutrition. Correct implementation has to be meted out ensuring that the supplies aren't spiked and children are not bereft of benefits.
In the recent past, we have seen how mid-day meals have been severely skewed with and standards of hygiene have gone for a complete toss. The quality of ration available through the public distribution system is so poor that it is often reserved as only fodder for cattle. The same fate striking RUTF would be absolutely unfortunate. Implementation is a key aspect that the government must now investigate. It should ensure that the untampered quality reaches the intended recipient and materials are not contaminated in the process. If corruption hampers the distribution of RUTF to the needy, it would reflect a most heinous dimension of the average Indian mind.