5 DECEMBER 2018
The national framework to improve nutrition for children must be upgraded on priority
The health, longevity and well-being of Indians has improved since Independence, and the high levels of economic growth over the past two-and-half-decades have made more funds available to spend on the social sector. Yet, the reality is that a third of the world’s stunted children under five — an estimated 46.6 million who have low height for age — live in India. A quarter of the children display wasting (that is, low weight for height) as well. As the Global Nutrition Report 2018 points out, this finding masks the wide variation in stunting levels in different parts of the country. District-level data show high and very high levels of stunting mainly in central and northern India (more than 30% and 40%, respectively), but less than 20% in almost the entire south. This shows the important role played by political commitment, administrative efficiency, literacy and women’s empowerment in ensuring children’s health. Food and freedom go together, and the availability of one strongly influences access to the other; social institutions can work to improve nutrition and children’s welfare in free societies, and the absence of hunger enables people to develop their capabilities. Governments should acknowledge the linkages and commit themselves to improved nutritional policies. The national framework to improve nutrition already exists. The Anganwadi Services scheme, which incorporates the Integrated Child Development Services, caters to children up to age six, and to pregnant and lactating women. If it has not worked well in several States, it must be subjected to a rigorous review and targeted interventions for supplementary nutrition made.
Among the factors affecting the quantity and quality of nutrition are maternal education, age at marriage, antenatal care, children’s diet and household size. Now that mapping of malnutrition at the district level is available, as in the Global Nutrition Report, it is incumbent on State governments to address these determining factors. A second issue is that of the quality of nutrition in packaged foods available to children. Going by the report, only 21% of these foods in India were rated as being healthy, based on overall energy, salt, sugar and saturated fat on the negative side, and vegetable, fruit, protein, fibre and calcium as positive factors. The fact that the global average of processed foods scored only 31% and a peak of 37% in New Zealand indicates that whole foods and cooked meals emerge superior. India should invest more of its economic prosperity in its welfare system, without binding itself in restrictive budgetary formulations. The Economic Survey 2017-18 put social services spending at 6.6% of GDP, an insignificant rise after a marginal decline from the 6% band during the previous year to 5.8%. The latest report on stunting and wasting should convince the Centre that it needs to understand the problem better and work with the States to give India’s children a healthy future.
A moving menace
Mob violence in the name of cow protection is shredding civic order
The violence in Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district is yet another notice of the toll being taken on civic order on account of the failure to crack down on vigilante mobs. Two persons, including a police inspector, lost their lives to bullets fired in Syana when villagers gathered outside a police post in protests over a rumour that cow carcasses had been found in the vicinity. In a curious coincidence, Monday’s violence touches back to the hate crime that marked the beginning of this long spell of vigilante violence over ‘cow protection’ across north India. Subodh Kumar Singh, the inspector killed in Bulandshahr, had been the first investigating officer when Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched near Dadri, also in western U.P., on September 28, 2015 on a rumour that he had beef in his possession. Then as now, an equivalence was sought to be made between the crime of mob violence and murder on the one hand, and the rumoured cow slaughter on the other. Alongside those charged with the violence, who include members of the Bajrang Dal, an FIR has been filed against seven Muslims for alleged cow slaughter. Investigations should reveal whether the mob at the police post formed organically, or whether there was a conspiracy to set up a communally polarising confrontation. In the din of pledges of speedy investigation by everyone from police to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, there is no equivalent messaging that no rumour or act of cow slaughter justifies mob violence.
Ever since the BJP came to power nationally in 2014, its governments in the States have moved to tighten laws prohibiting cow slaughter. Attendant to the legislative prohibition, bands of gau rakshaks, or cow-protection vigilantes, have created an atmosphere of fear, purportedly acting on suspicion of cow slaughter to round up and lynch at will cattle traders and passersby alike. Probes into the killing, in most cases, move in parallel with investigations into the allegations of cow slaughter or the possession of beef. And in a pattern that has crystallised, the hurt sentiments of gau rakshaks are played up to reinforce an equivalence between actual murderous crime and rumoured cow slaughter (often, as in the case of Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan’s Alwar district in April 2017, just for transporting cattle). The police, picking up the political signalling or even out of fear of being outnumbered, tend to play down the gravity of the crime — as in the case of a lynching in Hapur this year, initially projected as an outcome of road rage. In a disturbing indication of the impunity gau rakshaks believe they enjoy, they have captured on camera incidents of violence, including Monday’s. Why wouldn’t they, when the state has been playing to their script.