37.9% stunted children indicates a food crisis

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A startling piece of news has come to the fore in recent days to the effect that as many as 37.9 percent of children in India up to the age of five years are stunted.

This is an alarming situation indeed, and if left unaddressed, will mean that our future generations will be largely unhealthy.

There is hardly any point in setting ambitious targets of economic growth and of becoming a USD five trillion economy if so many of our children are categorized as "stunted". Rather, the first target must be to achieve proper nourishment for all our citizens so that such a shameful piece of statistic does not have to embarrass our pol icy-makers on every forum, national or international.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been emphasizing that the thrust of healthcare must be more preventive as against being overwhelming curative. We do not have to wait for our citizens to first become ill, and make huge and costly arrangements to treat them once they have fallen ill. Rather, we must make such arrangements that fewer people fall ill, which is a cost-effective way to provide proper healthcare.

Stunting in children is a direct result of lack of nutrition, may it be basic nutrition or lack of essential micro nutrients in food intake. Stunting can also result from abysmal living conditions. Lack of nutrition and abysmal living conditions can be linked to abject poverty and it is only significant that the percentage of stunted children are very similar to the percentage of people below the poverty line in India.

Malnutrition and under nourishment of the families living below the poverty line in India has nothing to do with there being no famine in the country. A city can have its shops stocked with foodstuff, but famine like conditions exist in that city for the poor who do not have the money to purchase the required calories every day. If high food inflation takes the price of food grains, milk, vegetables, fruits, bread, eggs etc. beyond the capacity to pay of the poor, one can say without fear of contradiction that famine-like situation exists for the poor.

The rationing system has all but collapsed in India. So, the poor are no longer guaranteed subsidized food. What option do the poor have in such a situation when they can not buy the required food? The only option is to make do with whatever is available and see their children being stunted and wasted in front of their eyes.

It seems that our planners and policy makers do not have the imagination or the resolve to do something about the stunted children. It is the need of the hour to first emerge from the state of denial and to recognize the harsh reality for what it is. Yes, it is an emergency situation and urgent steps have to be taken on a war footing to save these stunted children from a wasted life.

Even in a city like Delhi, the national capital, one can see crowds of 'beggars', entire families of them, spending their lives outside temples, and queueing up whenever some philanthropist distributes food in the 'bhandara'. Given the policy paralysis of the governments on issue of malnutrition and stunted children, these philanthropists are the heroes who are enabling crores of people across the country to keep body and soul together.

It is said that the best daan (donation) is annadaan (donation of food). Many people donate food on auspicious occasions and even in the memory of ancestors. If those who have the means decide to make more of their donations in the form of bhandaras, the problem of malnutrition can be tackled to a very large extent.  If malnutrition is thus tackled, the incidence of disease will also fall drastically, for a well-nourished body has more immunity and the strength to keep illness at bay. Consequently, the numbers of patients flocking to government hospitals will also come down saving precious resources for tackling more urgent problems confronting us.


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