India, the second-highest populated country in the world, is a land of complete contrasts. As per a survey, 22% of people in India live below the poverty line where at the same time, 84 of the world’s billionaires live in India.
More than 50% of the country’s wealth is owned by 1% of people, and even though being the second largest food producer in the world, India is home to the maximum number of malnourished children in the world, and the second-highest undernourished people in the world (as per FAO 2015).
The effects of malnourishment are irreversible in young children and it can lead to permanent disabilities of the children if not addressed promptly.
Malnutrition – A Major Global Public Health Threat
Malnutrition is prolonged under consumption of food and nutrients. Children suffering from malnutrition need intense care from their parents as they are more likely going to be less productive – physically and intellectually as adults.
Even though India is one of the fastest-growing countries in the South Asian region, it has severely failed to combat malnutrition affecting its socio-economic progress. As per statistics, half of the world’s malnourished children live in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
Out of 119 countries, India ranks 100 as per Global Hunger Index 2017. Under the age of 5, there are around 48% of children are stunted. Child Stunting is a state in which a child suffers from lower height for their age with other infectious diseases and is even perilous for a girl who becomes pregnant. This results in the newborn child being underweight and the cycle keeps worsening.
Sustainable Development Goals
As per United Nation’s SDG (Sustainable Development Goals), the 2030 Agenda For Sustainable Development aims to end hunger, achieve food security, improvising nutrition and moving towards sustainable agriculture. The ultimate goal of SDG is to reduce the child mortality rate and eliminate stunting amongst children.
Factors Behind Malnutrition
There are many different factors responsible for acute malnutrition in Indian children; however, the most important factor is the nutritional status of a pregnant woman. Out of all women in India, about 36% are underweight and about 56% of women and adolescent girls suffer from iron deficiency.
As a result, about a whopping 75% of new and adolescent mothers are anaemic putting on around only 5 kg weight during pregnancy compared to the world average of 10 kg.
Iron Deficiency Anaemia
The average decrease in iron deficiency anaemia was only 3.5% between the years 2005 – 2015 in India in which eight major states had failed to reduce the burden on women. Another factor adding to the problem of iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is menstrual blood loss in adolescent girls. Compared to adolescent boys, adolescent girls are less likely to consume protein and vitamin-rich food.
The National Health Family Survey reported only a 2% reduction in iron deficiency anaemia among women from 2005 to 2015. It has also been studied that children under 2 years of age suffer from brain function problems due to anaemia causing birth defects of the brain, spine or spinal cord.
Nutrition & Sanitization
Malnutrition starts with pregnant women and lactating mothers who are devoid of nutritional food. Due to poverty or gender inequality, women who have suffered malnutrition in childhood are more likely to have unhealthy babies.
As per UNICEF data, 33.33% of women in India are malnourished when they give birth to malnourished babies. Adding to that, the majority of Indian mothers lack the required knowledge to feed children for improving the nutritional status, which includes the lack of breastfeeding or reduced breastfeeding period than usual.
Poor sanitization is another major factor contributing to malnutrition in India. Diseases like diarrhoea and malaria spread rapidly through pathogens, which reduces the child’s resistance power. WHO estimates that about 50% of malnutrition in India is because of poor sanitization causing diarrhoea and intestinal infections.
In India, approximately 620 million people use public toilets or defecate in the open – one of the main reasons for intestinal infections, another reason being the use of contaminated water. As infections reduce the absorption of nutrients, evidence also suggests that drinking water can cause malnutrition in children due to infectious diseases through the public drinking water taps, where poor sanitization causes an incursion of garbage and refuse, turning these water taps into the perfect location for breeding mosquitoes to transmit malaria and other diseases.)
India, amongst all developing countries, has the highest number of malnourished children in the world. Almost a million children die every year in India before one month of age because of malnourishment. As per the global average, the anaemic adolescent mothers in India can gain only half the weight during pregnancy than they should. Not only malnutrition, the maternal and mortality rates in India are disturbingly high.
30 million children in India are acutely malnourished being too thin for their age and about 60 million children are too short in height for their age. India however; fares well in terms of infant mortality rate (IMR) and under-five mortality rate (U5MR). The Indian Government has introduced and expanded many programs to combat child malnutrition; however, there are still a lot of challenges and issues with these interventions.
Not only this, the unexpected Corona Virus Crisis (COVID-19) caused severe lockdowns across the country which interrupted a lot of government schemes that benefited millions of women and children. India is at the grim of this condition and overcoming the national nutritional paradox is critical than ever before.