Politicians in our country understandably focus on the hot-button issues, the ones that grab the headlines and the TRPs. But there is one issue they’re not paying enough attention to which could have a far greater impact on their constituents’ lives than most of the stories on Page 1 today.
Malnutrition – not just those forgotten black and white pictures of starving children with distended bellies, but the lack of essential micronutrients that is leaving so many millions of Indian children under-nourished and therefore, less able to fulfil their potential – is one of them.
Also Read: An Obese and Undernourished Nation?
The Malnutrition Challenge
- Among 132 countries, India ranks at 114 in stunting among children below the age of five.
- India’s economic growth has not kept pace with corresponding progress on health indicators.
- 70 per cent Indians consume less than 50 per cent of the recommended proportion of micronutrients.
- Govt has initiated measures since 1953 for fortification of food that ensure supply of nutrients to the masses.
- Apart from the Centre and respective state governments, the private sector can also be roped in to tackle the food crisis.
Malnourished Population in India
In April last year, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming the years between 2016 and 2025 the “Decade of Action on Nutrition”. The mission is to bring about policy commitments across the world to eradicate hunger, all forms of malnutrition, undernutrition, and micronutrient malnutrition, and to reduce the burden of diet-related non-communicable diseases.
There are several reasons for micronutrient deficiencies, ranging from something as basic as the inadequate intake of nutritious foods to infectious diseases, poverty and an unhealthy environment. The consequences of micronutrient malnutrition can be particularly damaging among pregnant women, increasing the risk of low birth weight, birth defects, stillbirth, and even death.
There is, therefore, good reason for us in India to embrace the UN’s initiative.
We have the world’s largest number of malnourished people, and one third of our 1.3 billion citizens suffer vitamin and micronutrient deficiencies.
Fortification of Food
The numbers are most appalling where children are concerned – more than 57 per cent of India’s boys and girls suffer Vitamin A deficiencies, many of them born to unhealthy mothers. Vitamin D intake remains alarmingly low, largely due to the kind of foods eaten here, with food fortification yet to be embraced as a solution to this problem.
Over 70 percent of our people consume less than 50 percent of the recommended proportion of micronutrients, which in turn leads to problems such as anaemia and vitamin, iodine and other deficiencies among all age groups.
There are several ways to address this problem. Dietary diversification is easier said than done when poverty remains the defining reality of our society, which is why fortification of food is one of the most effective strategies we have at our disposal. To fortify food is, essentially, to add micronutrients to processed food stuff.
Edible oil is the ideal carrier of micronutrients, where the cost of fortification also remains low. Oil is consumed by 99 percent of households in India, and virtually everybody has access to edible oil. Vitamins A and D are fat-soluble, making it easier to fortify oils than other food stuff.
Attempts have been made in this direction in the past. As early as 1953 it was made compulsory to fortify Vanaspati. Three decades ago salt fortification was introduced to address iodine deficiencies. I have written to the FSSAI and Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan on food fortification, but progress has been slow.
Some states have permitted voluntary fortification of edible oil, where such oil is then used in midday meal schemes to address nutrition and health requirements of children. Other states are slowly also picking up on this policy, and we would make excellent progress were foods supplied through government welfare schemes fortified.
Finding lasting solutions and making sustained interventions will require work not only from the central and state governments but also from private industries and experts already involved in the process.
Authorities at various levels will need to align their work to ensure that nutrition interventions are actually and effectively implemented, and policies and programmes promoting healthy diets will require civil society monitoring to be certain that they are serving their intended purposes.
Building Demographic Dividend
For too long, in a country where half our population is under the age of 35, we have trumpeted our demographic dividend. But unhealthy workers offer few dividends. Demography will only work for us if we can ensure that our people are healthy enough and capable of carrying our society into a productive 21st century.
India’s children must be able to enjoy a healthy life not only as an essential right but also for sustaining their own futures – and our country's. It is time for us to take steps for this, and fortification of food must be the logical first step.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)