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National Nutrition Month: Can India be malnutrition-free by 2022?

Bowl of rice on Indian flag, malnutrition/poverty concept.
India has been called the hunger and malnutrition capital of the world.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to make India malnutrition-free by 2022 and in a bid to do so September is being observed as Rashtriya Poshan Maah – National Nutrition Month – to raise awareness about nutrition. 

The objective is to reduce the number of instances of newborn babies with low birth weight, children with stunted growth, undernutrition and the prevalence of anaemia over the next three years. Health Issues India evaluates the state of nutrition in the country and the solutions in sight. 

According to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study by the University of Washington, malnutrition was the top cause of death and disability in India in 2017, followed by dietary risks including poor diet choices – which can contribute to malnutrition, prevalent across the country. Over the years India has shown exemplary performance in its GDP economic growth, rising fifty percent since 1991. However,194.4 million Indians are undernourished, representing 14.5 percent of the total population, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). 

Among adults, 23 percent of women and twenty percent of men are considered undernourished in India. On the other hand, 21 percent of women and nineteen percent of men are overweight or obese. This highlights the dichotomy in nutritional statistics of India and the country’s dual burden of malnutrition – significant proportions of the population grappling with health issues due to eating too little or too much.

According to the WHO, infants weighing less than 2.5 kg are twenty times more likely to die than heavier babies. In India, the national average weight at birth is less than 2.5 kg for nineteen percent of children.  The incidence of babies with low birth weight varies across different states, with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh witnessing the highest number of underweight child births at 23 percent.

India ranks 103 out of 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index and has one-third of the world’s stunted children, indicating that it has a long journey to achieve its ambitious target of making India malnutrition-free . Despite spearheading the largest anti-malnutrition programme and pledging Rs 1,23,580 crore over the next five years to tackle the problem, India has shown limited progress in curtailing the dangerous trend. The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the world’s largest programme to tackle child nutrition has been in force in the country since 1975.

A National Nutrition Strategy has been formulated to reduce all forms of malnutrition by 2030, with a focus on the most vulnerable and critical age groups. The strategy aims to launch the National Nutrition Mission to enable the integration of nutrition-related interventions. A decentralised approach will be promoted with greater flexibility and decision making at the state, district and local levels. The strategy proposes to launch interventions including the promotion of breastfeeding for the first six months after birth; universal access to infant and young childcare; enhanced care, referrals and management of severely undernourished and sick children; and micro-nutrient supplements and bi-annual deworming for children.

A new World Health Organisation report, Essential Actions: mainstreaming nutrition throughout the life course, stresses the significance of nutrition in public health care leading to universal health coverage. It claims that, if governments shift their focus to healthy eating, 3.7 million deaths could be prevented by the year 2025. At a time when India is staring at losing $46 billion by 2030 to malnutrition, it needs to pay heed to the significance of healthy diets. The WHO report further adds that “with every $1 spent by donors on basic nutrition programmes…$16 [is returned] to the local economy.” 

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