Looking at malnutrition in Karnataka, India during National Nutrition Week

Marianne de Nazareth

Over 1.2 million children in Karnataka in the age group of 0-6 years are malnourished and underweight, says a government report

Reading the shocking figures of malnutrition in 21st century India can be disconcerting. And according to research with facts and figures, the numbers are shamefully correct. 1.2 million children in Karnataka are malnourished, and this information was given by the State to the High Court.

During the National Nutrition Week, September 1st to 7th, let us take a step back and look at Karnataka in the 21st century. In his speech at the National Development Council the Honorable Chief Minister has stated “My Government has launched a Comprehensive Nutrition Mission, which will address the scourge of malnutrition and anemia particularly among children and women in a sustainable manner and also provide nutritional security to all the vulnerable groups.”

“The number of children suffering from malnutrition is very significant in our State. Special efforts are required to be made for overcoming this problem. The government proposes to start a Comprehensive Nutrition Mission. A provision of Rs.5 crore will be made for this for a pilot project.”

According to research, malnutrition is a major public health issue in India today, with about 50% of the population suffering from – protein-calorie deficit and/or micro-nutrient malnutrition. It is the underlying cause of at least 50% of deaths of under 5 children in the country. Even if it does not lead to death, malnutrition including micronutrient deficiencies, often leads to permanent damage including impairment of physical growth and mental development, and to added health care costs to the State.

Close on the heels of the damning hunger and malnutrition (HUNGaMA) report, which found 42 per cent children below age five across India underweight and 59 per cent children stunted, comes another report on the state of nutrition among children in Karnataka state. Over 1.2 million children in the state in the age group of 0-6 years are malnourished and underweight, says a government report submitted to the Karnataka High Court on January 19. The report was filed in response to a public interest petition being heard by the court.

Dr Anita Arockiasamy a doctor from India Home Health Care (IHHC) says besides the rural areas, even in the city, children don’t get enough nutrients, carbohydrates, proteins, fat in proper quantities in their diet. The problem is parents are unaware of the actual nutrients a child should be given. More carbs than proteins are ingested in both villages and in the city. That is why many kids suffer from vitamin deficiency. With today’s fast paced lifestyle people don’t look at proper balanced meals. Convenience foods and packaged foods are the way out.

” Vegetarians should look at having milk, curd, dal, paneer, cheese, rajma, soya and non- vegetarians include vegetables in their diet,” she says.

“My son loves eating pizza,” says Gayatri Dinakaran. ” I order in pizza several times in a week because otherwise he does not want to eat anything. KFC chicken too has ads on the TV which gives us a big box of chicken for Rs 400and the children really enjoy that instead of regular meals. I also pack Maggi noodles in their boxes for lunch in school.”

This is a middle class family in Bangalore and the old fashioned hot meal cooked at home to include rice, dal and a sabzi seems to be a thing of the past, as both spouses work.

Sabrina Fernandes however sees that a proper meal is taken by the children to school which includes a small portion of rice, vegetable, a lentil and chicken or beef. ” The children are into sports, so I am particular they eat correctly and don’t put on any flab. Their coach has even written out a diet sheet for me, which we follow,” she explains.

Civil society groups in Karnataka blame packaged food supplied to many anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme for the poor nutritional status of Karnataka’s children. Since November 2010, NGOs in Karnataka have been campaigning for replacing packaged food given to pre-school children at anganwadi centres across the state with locally prepared hot-cooked meals.

Instead of using the community self-help groups for providing hot cooked meals at anganwadis, in May 2007, the government of Karnataka entered a contract with a Tamil Nadu-based private company, to supply packaged food. Since then, children attending anganwadis are being given packets of dry food mixture to which hot water is added before consumption.

In letters sent to the department of women and child development (DWCD) and the chief secretary of Karnataka, a Bangalore lawyer wrote that the food at the anganwadis is “not palatable and that there is a strong link to the lack of nutritious food being supplied and increasing malnutrition”. The report added that Supreme Court had strictly prohibited use of contractors in supply of food under ICDS Scheme.

The food is supplied in pre-packaged form and is prepared by mixing with hot water. “The bisibele bath (a rice preparation) that is served every alternate day is inedible because of the smell,” the lawyer wrote in his report. Repeated requests for hot cooked meals of cereals, pulses, eggs, vegetables and fruits, however, were never met by the government.

“Under the contract, the company is allowed to spend Rs 4 per child. In one of the anganwadis, the local panchayat started cooking using locally produced food with the help of self-help groups and the cost for feeding per child came to Rs 2,” says Ratna who works with an NGO. Over 1.4 million children between three and six years old get food at the anganwadis in Karnataka.

Sadly parents in cities need to realise the value of balanced and healthy nutrition for their children and steps should be taken to ensure the rural poor are fed hot and freshly cooked meals with governmental support.

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