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Indian Prime Minister calls child malnutrition a “national shame”

The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, has called the level of malnutrition among the country’s children a “national shame”.

His comments followed the release of a new report – ‘Fighting Hunger & Malnutrition’ – which was commissioned by the Citizens Alliance against Malnutrition. For the report, a widespread survey of children was conducted across nine states of India. The project was called HUNGaMA, after the Hindi word for a ‘stir’ or ‘ruckus’ caused by people coming together for a festival or celebration. The project’s backers want to create a new kind of ‘hungama’ about the state of hunger and malnutrition in India. But to stir enthusiasm and commitment, they realised detailed information was needed for drawing up concrete steps to address the problem.

The HUNGaMA Survey was carried out between October 2010 and February 2011 in 3,360 villages across 112 districts in 9 states. Questioning over 74,000 mothers and weighing over 109,000 children, the data in the report covers nearly 20% of Indian children and represents the first statistically valid study into malnutrition since 2006. The findings of the HUNGaMA report show there has been some improvement, but the rate of child malnutrition is still unacceptably high. In the 100 poorest districts (as defined by UNICEF in 2009) – called the 100 Focus Districts - 42% of children under five were underweight and 59% were stunted. The 42% represented a 20% decrease compared to 2004 data, when 53% of young children in these districts were underweight.

The consequences of such high levels of malnutrition are devastating. Lack of nutrition causes one third to half of all child deaths. And the stunting of physical growth and cognitive development in children has lifelong consequences. Apart from the appalling effect on individuals, the economic losses due to malnutrition are put at 3% of the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product.

The Citizens Alliance against Malnutrition, formed of parliamentarians and other leaders in society, is determined to see changes. The new data will allow planners to better target where improvements can be made. Apart from focusing on the 100 poorest districts, the HUNGaMA Survey looked at the 6 best districts of poor states and of India’s 6 ‘best’ states. This highlighted stark differences between regions. In the 100 Focus Districts, over 66% of mothers had never been to school and their general lack of education meant a low awareness of issues such as malnutrition. In the best districts, only 4% of mothers lacked basic levels of education. There were also huge differences in best practice between the regions, in vital areas such as giving colostrums to newborn infants, breastfeeding and the starting of semi-solids at 6 months of age. The report concludes that much can be achieved through better education of women and more support for the Anganwadi health workers who look after new mothers.

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