- COVID will have a huge impact of India’s overall nutrition targets: Survey
- Because of the pandemic, India’s poor families are eating less food: Survey
- Government services like take home ration have also been disturbed: Survey
New Delhi: India is currently fighting two major battles – The coronavirus outbreak and the malnutrition crisis. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations , though India is one of the world’s largest food producer of milk, pulses, and ranks as the second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnut, vegetables, fruit and cotton, yet ironically, the country is home to the largest population of hungry people. FAO estimates in ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 2020 report, that 189.2 million people are undernourished in India, which means 14 per cent of the population is undernourished in the country.
And the crisis of coronavirus has only worsened these conditions and India’s poor and hungry are being affected the most. To know the on ground situation and how coronavirus outbreak has impacted India’s nutrition, NGO Save The Children did two rapid need surveys in the past few months in 14 states and 2 Union Territories of India. The survey with more than 7,000 respondents found crucial insights to put a context to how the pandemic is impacting the nutritional targets for the country.
NDTV spoke to Dr. Antaryami Dash, Head, Nutrition, Save the Children for key insights into the findings of the survey.
Question: What is the impact of COVID-19 on people’s health and nutrition in India?
Dr. Antaryami Dash: More than the virus itself, our overall response against this pandemic has brought visible impact on people’s lives.
During our two surveys we found that families across the country are facing grave challenges when it comes to getting nutritious and healthy meals. The other challenge is in the form of food price hikes, unemployment, restricted mobility and disruption to health and social services – regardless of whether they are directly affected by the virus or not – their nutritional intake, and therefore their overall health, has had a visible impact due to the pandemic.
The pandemic has also brought many of our existing fault lines to the surface and impacted communities adversely through overwhelmed and disrupted services. Estimates show that even with the best possible scenario India might witness around 60,000 additional child deaths in next six months due to poor nutrition.
According to Save The Children survey it came to the limelight that the rural households in India are facing three biggest challenges in the times of coronavirus – first the households have restricted cash for day to day activities and food supplies. Secondly as they have limited livelihood opportunities which in coronavirus circumstances has gotten worse and is affecting their daily nutrition and food intake. Thirdly, according to the survey, it was noted that under the government schemes and services the beneficiaries in the time of pandemic did not get constant supply of their rations.
It was observed that one in every three households did not receive their take home ration (THR) in India during the time of pandemic, close to two-fifth of the household reported that their children are not receiving mid-day-meal and are therefore becoming weak. And close to one out of fifth household did not receive ration under the public distribution scheme by the government.
Some of the poorest households consider the Government schemes such as Take Home Ration, Supplementary Nutrition Programme or Mid-Day meal as their prime source of food. This pandemic came at a time when food security – which is necessary to combat hunger and malnutrition was already under strain. Declining incomes and disrupted markets are leading to decreased purchasing power, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable households. Recently, apart from India’s Rapid Need survey, Save the Children also conducted a study covering 46 countries (including India) to understand the impact of COVID-19 on children. Some of the key findings are as follows:
▪ Four in five households struggled to pay for food
▪ Two in five households found it difficult to provide their families with a nutritious diet
▪ Most parents and caregivers (89%) reported that their access to healthcare, medicine or medical supplies had been affected
COVID induced disrupted services, leading to poor access and coverage will further pose challenges to achieve our nutrition targets. The inequitable impact on the marginalized communities due to disruption of services is likely to increase inequalities in the long term, making it much more challenging to achieve nutrition targets set by India.
Much of the nutrition issues are multi-factorial and intergenerational in nature, demanding a sustained approach that can deal with both nutrition specific and sensitive issues.
During our surveys we found that a lot of families are having difficulties in accessing even one time meal for the day due to the pandemic, if this continues, the fear is that all these reasonS could reverse the progress made in the past few years in reducing undernutrition within a year. Hunger is an immediate threat to marginalized families, both due to the loss of daily wages and the disruption of the food supply chains. Children who relied on school meals for most of their nutritional needs are now at risk of acute hunger due to disruption of services over the past few months.
Question: Will India be able to achieve it nutrition/malnutrition target in the wake of coronavirus outbreak?
India has set some nutritional targets for itself to eradicate malnutrition from the country. The government also introduced a flagship initiative POSHAN Abhiyan in 2018 in bit to achieve these goals. The aim of the programme is to reduce stunting, underweight, and low birth weight, by 2 per cent every year; and anaemia among young children, adolescents and women each by 3 per cent per year until 2022. A special target for stunting is set at 25 per cent by the year 2022, according to Ministry of Women and Child Development under which Poshan Abhiyan was introduced.
Dr. Antaryami Dash: Even before this pandemic, it was difficult for us to achieve the nutrition targets set by National Nutrition Mission (POSHAN Abhiyaan). Study shows that if the trends up to 2017 continue, the POSHAN Abhiyaan 2022 and the WHO and UNICEF 2030 targets will not be achieved in most states of India, except for low birthweight and stunting in a few states and exclusive breastfeeding in several.
Through our on-ground surveys and what experts are saying, one thing we know for sure is the fact that the pandemic has disturbed the services and livelihood across the country, which will definitely have a long term impact on India’s nutrition. If we look at the current scenario, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, somewhere around 235 million people in India are having insufficient food intake. As per the statistics, due to COVID, since the schools are shut, approximately 90 million children are missing out on meals at school in India, which is considered by these household the most nutritious meal. In such circumstances, to meet nutritional goals are tough, very tough!
Question: POSHAN Abhiyan initiative in India – Will it be able to change country’s nutrition scenario in future?
Dr. Antaryami Dash: POSHAN Abhiyaan has a very good intention and focus. Never before we’ve had this level of political will and leadership for malnutrition. Now we need to focus more on its implementation and monitoring at the lowest administrative units (in the Panchayats and Blocks). The community awareness activities envisaged under POSHAN Maah and Jan Andolan should be continued and intensified across the year and not just for one month of September. If we reach the remotest of remote area, village, block in India and fix the problem of nutrition, only then we would be able to achieve the overall malnutrition targets.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.