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Dear PM Modi: Good Food Will Reduce the Burden of Malnutrition, Not Bhajans

Dear PM Modi: Good Food Will Reduce the Burden of Malnutrition, Not Bhajans

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a televised address on April 14, 2020. Photo: PIB

  • In the 92nd episode of ‘Mann ki Baat’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said conducting bhajans can be part of the solutions to reducing malnutrition.
  • Cultural and traditional practices are not harmful. But it is in bad faith to make them part of habits that sideline tested and approved solutions to crucial welfare issues.
  • The statement also distracts from the fact that in Modi’s time as prime minister, India has come to account for a quarter of all undernourished people worldwide.

In the 92nd episode of his ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio programme on August 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of the ‘Mera Bachha’ campaign and about celebrating ‘Poshan Maah’ – the cause of good nutrition – in September. He also said that conducting bhajans and singing devotional songs can help reduce the burden of malnutrition.

There is much evidence in the public domain that says the availability, accessibility and affordability of good-quality food is crucial to improve the nutritional and health status of India’s people. There is nothing, however, about bhajans.

Many scholars and scientists have often criticised Prime Minister Modi for his irrational claims on many occasions. Reminiscent of his “taali, thali and Diwali” campaign as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining strength, Modi’s comment on bhajans only distracts from the dire importance of effective public health measures – even as the rate of improvement of some important indicators have slid in his time at the helm.

Cultural and traditional practices are not harmful. But it is in bad faith to make them part of habits that sideline tested and approved solutions to crucial welfare issues.

In his monologue, Modi narrated a story of how people of a community in Madhya Pradesh each contribute a small quantity of grains, using which a meal is prepared for everyone one day a week. However, he shifted the focus at this point to devotional music in bhajankirtans – organised under the ‘Mera Bachha’ campaign – instead of dwelling on the role of Indigenous food cultures. This is counterproductive.

More malnourished children

India’s National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) and Comprehensive National Nutrition Surveys have documented the high prevalence of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency among India’s children, adolescents and women. The recently published NFHS-5 results reported a high prevalence of stunting, wasting and underweightedness among children younger than five years and that they have declined only marginally in the last five years.

(Stunting – low height for age; underweight – low weight for age; wasting – low weight for height.)

Currently, more than 35% of children are stunted, 19.3% are wasting and 32.5% are underweight in the country.

Since the year Modi became prime minister, the undernourished population has increased from 14.9% to 15.5% of the total population, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Bank data. As a result, India accounted for more than a fourth of the world’s undernourished population in 2019. While the rate of undernourishment declined from 2014 to 2016, malnourishment increased significantly.

Several factors play crucial roles in producing chronic malnutrition in children. Some of the important ones are the mother’s nutritional status, education, breastfeeding, interval between pregnancies, marriage age and good sanitation. About 36% of India’s women are underweight, and 56% of women and 56% of girls aged 15-19 years suffer from iron-deficiency anaemia.

About half of all deaths of children younger than five years are linked to poor nutrition. Stunting in early life can also have lasting effects on health, physical and cognitive development, and learning and earning potential. And health policies and programmes haven’t been able to reduce this problem to the desired extent.

Basis in evidence

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) is the only government body directly responsible for implementing nutrition-related schemes. Its primary objective is to minimise the gap between the average daily intake and the recommended dietary allowance through a supplementary nutrition programme.

However, the ICDS’s interventions to deal with malnutrition have had mixed results for several reasons, as illustrated by India’s enormous anaemia burden.

A public-health approach to malnutrition requires us to pay attention to a large variety of socioeconomic conditions. In this regard, while many of Prime Minister Modi’s other comments in his monologue are well-taken, especially about public participation, neither the need for context-specific interventions nor for evidence-based policies are served by misplaced allusions to bhajans and kirtans.

Pankaj Kumar Mishra is a PhD scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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