Sunday, January 15, 2012

India's crisis of malnutrition

Shankkar Aiyar.

There is more shame. With four of 10 children under-5 underweight, India does worse than much maligned sub-Saharan Africa where only 22 per cent of the kids are underweight. India also has a higher proportion of children under five who are underweight, who suffer from wasting and who are stunted due to malnourishment, than in the dark region of Africa. And this has been the case for some time now. Consider the names of some of the countries (UNICEF data) who score better than India: Albania, Algeria, Bhutan, Cameroon, China (if you thought this was about scale), Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and even Myanmar!

The co-relation between poverty, malnourishment, primary school enrolment and school drop-outs had been recognised way back in the seventies. It was also very clear as early as in the eighties that state intervention in the form of income and food support was critical. Soon after MGR introduced the mid-day meals scheme for school children in 1982, it was clear (and later certified by the World Bank) that the intervention helped curb malnutrition and encouraged enrolment. Indeed, the first calls for a national scheme came up at the meeting of the National Development Council in 1985. And Manmohan Singh would remember this because he was then the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission and Rajiv Gandhi the chairman. Yet it took till 1995 for the Centre to announce a national scheme and another 10 years for the scheme to be universalised finally in 2004 for all students. And that also happened only after the intervention of the Supreme Court.

Mind you, this is not about spending or resources. Countries with lesser resources, but a more committed bureaucracy have done it. And as early as in the eighties, the World Bank and UNICEF had concluded that it cost less than $10 per child per year to address malnutrition. Consider the arithmetic of costs for required intervention. Assuming India has currently 160 million children in the 0-6 age group, what would it cost to feed all of them? Do the math and think. Is the cost beyond the capacity of a trillion-dollar economy?