According to the executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Antony Lake, approximately 48 percent of India’s children suffer from stunted physical growth. Make no mistake it’s a cause for deep concern. Speaking to a leading news agency, Lake said that undernutrition, and especially stunting, is one of the least recognised crises for children world over. Stunted growth among children is a consequence of undernutrition in the first 1000 days of an infant’s life, including the gestation period he/she undergoes. What’s worse, numerous studies have shown that ill-effects of malnutrition at a tender age can result in irreversible health consequences.
These studies have gone on to suggest that stunted children learn less in school. Consequently, they are more likely to find themselves to live in poverty and go on to have children also stunted by poor nutrition. This vicious cycle of poverty only widens the gap between the rich and poor. “You can feed up an underweight child, but with a stunted child, because of the effects on the brain, it has a permanently reduced cognitive capacity by the age of around two years old,” Lake said.
In the context of the food security debate in India, it is imperative to understand that poor nutrition is not a consequence of a lack of food. In fact, according to most reports, India is food secure. However, this does not mean that food is being distributed equitably. In light of such disturbing facts, one is surprised by the Centre’s decision to effectively phase out the Antyodaya food scheme launched by the previous NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, according to certain news reports. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is an Indian government sponsored scheme for the allocation of food grains to the poorest of the poor families. It is safe to say that such schemes, allied with other government-sponsored programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services, have played a significant part in reducing the number of stunted children less than five years of age by 9.1 percentage points in eight years. This figure was arrived at last year by a renowned global think-tank on food security called the International Food Policy Research Institute.
In certain states, unfortunately, more inane policy decisions surrounding the food security for young impoverished children have come to light. Although 52 percent of children in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished, its Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan saw it fit to shoot down a proposal to include either egg curry or boiled eggs in Anganwadi meals on a pilot basis in three tribal districts. It has been alleged that the powerful Jain community mounted pressure on the State government to implement such a diktat.
In response to the outright criticism meted out by on-the-ground activists and civil society members, the State government’s principal secretary said that it is a “sentimental issue” dear to the chief minister and that “other more nutritious options” are available. Governments, both at the State and Centre, will need to do a lot more than conduct pan-India yoga sessions to confront an issue that affects the very development aspirations of this country.