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Feeding India’s children

Indian scientists have just published a study warning that the nation’s vegetable yields could suffer with a decline in pollinating insects. The agricultural industry accounts for almost one fifth of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Much of the sector is concerned with cereals which do not require pollination. But vegetables such as pumpkin, squash, cucumber and gherkin rely on bees.

Each year India grows around 7.5 million tonnes of vegetables, roughly 14% of the global total. As well as providing a living for farmers, who make up more than half of India’s 1.2 billion population, vegetables provide an important food source for many poor families. Around one quarter of India’s population is estimated to live below the poverty level, surviving on less than 1 dollar per day. And the scientists are worried that any decline in the number of bees will lead to reduced vegetable crops and even greater food insecurity.

Nearly half of India’s small children are already malnourished; the country has one of the highest rates globally of under-fives who are underweight. Almost as worrying as the prevalence of malnutrition in India, is the lack of progress in reducing the numbers of underweight children. GDP in India has almost doubled since 1991, yet the country seems certain to miss its Millennium Development Goal of halving malnutrition by 2015.

There is a national programme aimed at tackling child malnutrition, called the “Integrated Childhood Development Service” (ICDS). This scheme was launched in 1975 and set up ‘Anganwadi’ centres around the country, each with a nutritional teacher and an assistant for every 1,000 people. The centres are responsible for the nutritional care of pregnant women and children up to school-going age. But the centres tend to concentrate on the people they see every day, mothers of children over two years, who take advantage of free child care and free daily meals offered to children when they turn two. However, there are no incentives for pregnant women to attend the centres or for children under two. And unfortunately, most growth retardation occurs in children before that age, beginning with poor nutrition of the mother through the pregnancy.

More than half of women in India of childbearing age are thought to be anaemic and 30% of children are born underweight. This can normally be rectified with six months of breastfeeding. But in countryside areas, many women return to work in the fields shortly after giving birth and switch to cow’s milk and water, which does not provide enough nutrients. The risk of infection from dirty water is also high and this risk increases when the children move onto solids.

The food served by the ICDS centres varies in quality from state to state and some regions are trying to improve the content by giving contracts to local women who are less likely to pilfer money and supplies. But as well as improving the quality of the food given to children over two, the ICDS scheme also needs to offer something to younger children and pregnant mothers if malnutrition rates are to decrease. According to the head of Unicef’s food programme in the country, it is now time for India to act.

Laurinda Luffman signature