Latest data on the highly worrying nutrition situation in India is shocking and following the availability of this data the debate on nutrition has intensified again. There has been an increasing unfortunate tendency in recent times for some powerful commercial interests to push their narrow selfish interests in the name of improving the nutrition situation. Sometimes these interests try to push artificial additives, sometimes they advocate very risky GM crops, sometimes they try to sell certain products ( the funds of a high profile nutrition program in India have been widely used in recent times on a large scale to buy many, many smart phones for nutrition workers).
It is surprising that many government and international agencies are quite supportive towards such narrow selfish use of nutrition needs. Hence funds badly needed for providing food to undernourished and malnourished get diverted to dubious and sometimes hazardous uses. Such trends should be checked, as also all other corruption in nutrition programs.
Leaving aside such narrow interest groups, however, even the serious and well-intentioned debate has assumed a narrow focus in recent times as here is overwhelming emphasis on the various leading nutrition schemes, particularly ICDS ( anganwadi ) and mid-day meals, as also supportive ones like POSHAN, sabla and matru-vandana, and also on public distribution system (PDS).
There is absolutely no doubt that these schemes need higher budgetary resources and other reforms. This is also the more obvious, measurable, way of taking forward nutrition, something which can be monitored in statistical figures. Certainly these schemes with their huge reach in India are very important ( despite their temporary closure or setback in recent Covid times). But to carry out the overall discussion on nutrition mostly in the context of these schemes is not correct. Other very important factors should be considered.
Ultimately nutrition depends above all on whether various households have the capacity to access, produce or buy nutritious wholesome balanced food for all the family members or not. This in turn depends a lot on equality and justice in society and this ultimately is the most important determinant of nutrition. For example in many villages where a lot of hunger and malnutrition exists, this can be reduced drastically simply by more equal distribution of land. But this is often not even discussed in the context of the nutrition debate. Payment of fair wage, protected and well-paid livelihoods, some form of employment/income guarantee, all these are very important factors in ensuring much better nutrition but above all an overall system based on equality and justice is most important. Gender justice and equality are also very important. Nutrition is better when girl child gets the same importance as boy child, or when a woman has to right to tell her husband– and ensure he obeys!—that limited money available will be spent on fruits and not on liquor.
Secondly, systems capable of producing and making available adequate, diverse, nourishing, safe and healthy staple foods at affordable price are very important. This implies ( speaking for the time being only in context of vegetarian food ) that clean drinking/cooking water, cereals, millets, oilseeds, legumes, vegetables, fruits, milk and milk products, salt and spices, sugar and jaggery of proper quality, from a safety and health viewpoint, should be available in such quantities as to meet the nutrition needs of all people. We are very far from fulfilling this requirement.
Thirdly protection of environment– in particular soil, water, bio-diversity, pollinators, pastures, forests—is extremely important for maintaining food-security in terms of sustainable food production systems. Natural mixed forests have been the repository of so much high nutritious food available free but this is being lost very rapidly.
It is important to bring in all these and other factors and only then we can have a proper, comprehensive, holistic understanding of why nutrition in any society is improving or declining, and what needs to be done for sustainable, firmly rooted, broad-based food and nutrition security.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine.