Saving children from malnutrition


More than seven decades after independence, the country has suddenly discovered that over nearly half of all deaths in children under five years of age in India are attributable to malnutrition or under-nutrition. This translates into the loss of about 3 million young lives a year. Joint estimates made recently by UNICEF and World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that while malnutrition leads to stunting, wasting and low birth weight among children, a large number of children in the country have been suffering from these situations. Nearly 151 million of Indian children under five years of age were stunted in 2017 due to malnutrition, while another about 51 million were found suffering wasting. Malnutrition is known to put children at greater risk of dying from common infections, increases the frequency and severity of such infections, and? delays recovery from any kind of infection.

Given this situation, the Government of India has launched a special campaign called National Nutrition Mission (NMM) or Poshan Abhiyan, under which as many as 315 districts across the country have been identified as having alarming proportion of malnutrition and its other syndromes. Of these, as many as 225 districts have been selected for coverage under the first phase of National Nutrition Mission, among which are five districts of Assam too. These are Goalpara, Dhubri, Karimganj Barpeta and Darrang. While the social welfare department has been appointed the nodal department for running this multi-crore rupee campaign, at least six other departments have been also drawn into the mechanism, so that a coordinated effort could be made to eradicate malnutrition in the country in a phased manner.
The situation of malnutrition in Assam in fact is very alarming. According to official statictics, roughly seven lakh babies are born in Assam every year, of which however, on an average about 30,000 infants die every year. If official figures are to be believed about 49,000 children had died in Assam during 2015 before they had reached the age of five. Among them again, about 18,000 babies had died within one month of their birth. About 7,800 babies had died due to premature birth or low birth weight about 4,800 had died due to diarrhoea, and about 6,500 die to pneumonia. No wonder the Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in Assam is one of the highest in the entire country.

Compared to this, the national scenario of malnutrition is no better. According to data generated through NFHS-4, more than 38 per cent of the country’s children below five years of age are stunted. What should be considered a matter of national shame is that India accounts for more than three of every ten stunted children of the world. Around 21 per cent of India’s under-five children are suffering from wasting, and about 35.7 per cent are suffering from underweight.

Anaemia, which is directly related to malnutrition, too is very high at the all-India level. About 53 per cent of all women in India in the age-group of 15 to 49 years are suffering from anaemia. Among all pregnant women in the age-group of 15 to 49 years, more than 50 per cent are anaemic, while 53.1 per cent of non-pregnant women in the 15-49 age-group suffer from anaemia. Anaemia among children is also very high. As many as 58.4 per cent of children in the 6-59 months age-group in India are anaemic. Among adolescent girls in the 15-19 age-group, the prevalence of anaemia is as alarming as 54 per cent.

All this is happening at a time when children are caught in a world driven by colourful and attractive advertisements of noodles, pizzas, fast food and what not. Yet, the basic issue of ensuring that girls under the age of 18 years do not enter marriage and become pregnant, that new-born babies are fed exclusively on mother’s milk for the first six months, and that every child is particularly taken care of during his or her first 1,000 days of life – have so long remained largely unaddressed. All this has also happened even after decades of all kinds of focus on children – beginning with celebrating the country’s first Prime Minister’s birthday as Children’s Day, and observing Year of the Child, Decade of the Child and what not.

All this has also come to light when the present government has undertaken a massive campaign called “Beti Bachao, Bet Pardhao” – intended not just saving the girl child, but also ensuring that she gets free education up to the age of 18. What is tragic is that the issue of malnutrition has never been in the public mind – be it in the minds of political parties and leaders, of self-styled intellectuals who quarrel shamelessly in television studios every evening, of professors and scholars who teach in universities and colleges, of doctors and medical scientists and more particularly paediatricians. Yet we want to see our children excel in all fields of life. We want or children to grow up and bring gold medals from the Olympics and other sports events. We want our children to get international recognition in science and technology. We want our children to become super human beings. All without least bothering to find out whether they are getting the right amount of nutrition or not.