This is why many children in India are still going to sleep hungry

Despite having surplus grains and the world’s earliest and largest scheme to battle hunger and malnutrition, millions of Indian children still remain malnourished owing to the ground level glitches

Patralekha ChatterjeePatralekha Chatterjee   28 Sep 2019 8:55 AM GMT

This is why many children in India are still going to sleep hungry

Are children in impoverished tribal areas getting nutritious vegetarian meals in anganwadis and in the school-feeding programmes? The answer is no. The drama over the egg is a telling marker of how the big battle against malnourishment gets mired in petty confrontations and glitches on the ground.

Feminism has many faces. Sometimes, it makes its case effortlessly, without buzzwords. Like Mukta Kujoor.

Mukta is from Diuli, a remote village in Chhattisgarh's Koriya district. The nearest town is Manendragarh, nearly 50 km away.

Mukta's village does not have piped water. Till recently, only women and girls trudged long distances to fetch water from the nearest handpump.

But there are flickers of change.

"In the beginning, it was tough to get women to come out for a meeting. There was a lot of resistance from family members. No one wanted women to attend public gatherings. Women were thrashed. Even I have suffered. But we persisted. Today, my husband and my children wash utensils, cook. They fetch water. They have no problems about me going off to attend meetings. It did not happen overnight or easily," Kujoor tells me as we sip sweet, milky tea from tiny paper cups during a short break at the National Convention on the Right to Food and Work at Raipur – an annual meeting of activists, community-based workers, artists and researchers who are part of the Right to Food campaign.

The National Convention on the Right to Food and Work was organised at Raipur recentlyThe National Convention on the Right to Food and Work was organised at Raipur recently

The Right to Food campaign gathered momentum from the 'right to food' case, a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court (PUCL vs Union of India and Others, Civil Writ Petition 196 of 2001). This led to the Supreme Court appointing Commissioners to monitor the implementation of court orders on the right to food. This was a landmark decision and though the legal process remained separate from the campaign, there has been a lot of mutual consultation between the two.

This year, some 900 people from 15-odd states came to the meeting. I was delighted to find that the Convention gave a voice to well-known activists like economist Jean Dreze (who spoke in Hindi) as well as frontline workers like Mukta.

Mukta is a 'mitanin', a community worker unique to Chhattisgarh. She has been at her job since 2003. The much-lauded mitanin programme, a community health volunteer programme, was initiated by the Government of Chhattisgarh in 2002. Many see it as a precursor to the National Rural Health Mission's Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) programme.

As mitanins tell their stories, one can see that the changes have been at many levels – to the community at large and to the mitanins themselves.

"Earlier, we were scared to come home after meetings. We were afraid we would be beaten up for stepping out. We covered our heads. But look at us now," says Mukta's friend Jaiman Singh, also a mitanin.

Much of the visible confidence comes from their affiliation to community-based organisations which seek to empower tribal populations, as well as their work on the ground as mitanins.

In a country, where one-fourth of children are born with low birth weight, 35.7% of children under five are underweight, 38.4% are stunted and 21% are wasted, what does the fight for the right to nutritious food mean on the ground?

And why is the battle over the egg still continuing in a state where 37.60 per cent children of age below five years are suffering from malnutrition?

As everyone knows, the egg is a hugely emotive issue in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party. But curiously, even opposition-ruled states are mired in battles over the egg.

In Chhattisgarh, the previous government led by the BJP had removed eggs from the mid-day meal scheme in 2015. Soon after it came to power, the Congress-led Bhupesh Baghel government agreed on principle to re-introduce eggs in the mid-day meal scheme.

But Mukta and many other frontline workers that I met say that eggs are still not part of the mid-day meal in most schools in the state. Mukta says she and other community workers have gone to the district administration and have pleaded for inclusion of eggs in meals in anganwadis and school feeding programmes in tribal pockets. But despite the government's assurances, only some children – mostly severely malnourished children – get to eat eggs.

Mukta, a mitanin, is from Diuli, a remote village in Chhattisgarh's Koriya districtMukta, a mitanin, is from Diuli, a remote village in Chhattisgarh's Koriya district

The drama over the egg is a telling marker of how the big battle against malnourishment gets mired in petty confrontations and glitches on the ground, despite a grand vision and a National Nutrition Mission.

Children can get their protein and other nutrition requirements from a vegetarian diet but such a diet must have variety, must have green vegetables and contain a combination of cereals, millets and pulses to provide all the amino acids anybody needs.

Are children in impoverished tribal areas who are denied eggs getting nutritious vegetarian meals in anganwadis and in the school-feeding programmes? From what I heard from frontline workers, the answer is no, in many places.

"On an everyday basis, children who come to anganwadis in this area get rice, daal, sometimes soya, and vegetables, but these are not usually green vegetables. For mid-day meals, it is again rice, daal, potatoes, chana but rarely green vegetables," Mukta tells me.

State governments are making an effort. The Chhattisgarh government, for example, has set the goal to make the state malnutrition and anaemia free in the next three years.

But ground-level bottlenecks remain.

In July this year, thousands of Kabirpanthis staged a 'Chakka Jam' at the national highway. They were protesting the state government's decision to serve eggs in mid-day meal to school students to tackle malnutrition. Opposition BJP and Janata Congress Chhattisgarh have raised the issue in the state assembly, asking the government to respect the sentiments of the Kabirpanthis.

In India, 35.7% of children under five are underweight, 38.4% are stunted and 21% are wastedIn India, 35.7% of children under five are underweight, 38.4% are stunted and 21% are wasted

Congress MLAs say eggs would help prevent malnourishment among children in tribal and other backward areas. But on the ground, the impasse continues.

Political skirmishes over what can be served to children in anganwadis and mid-day meals are not the only roadblocks. There are administrative bottlenecks as well.

Delays in disbursement of funds to those who actually prepare the food for mid-day meals and delay in payment of honorariums and salaries add to problems, as Sulakshana Nandi, co-chair of the global network the People's Health Movement and a Right to Food activist, points out. Self-help groups who prepare meals for school feeding programmes are supposed to get money in advance. When that does not happen, they are forced to buy on credit from the local grocer and the choice is limited, says Nandi.

Variations of the same story are playing out in many states where children go to sleep hungry. It is not always for lack of a vision. Chhattisgarh, for example, has clearly innovated in delivering the mid-day meal -- it has introduced an online system of rice provisioning to cut down the time taken to deliver rice to schools and decrease pilferage; the state has also involved local women in the cooking of meals and pays them a higher honorarium to increase their incentive to work.

Despite having surplus grains and the world's largest scheme to battle hunger and malnutrition, millions of Indian children still remain malnourished. Ground-level glitches remain.

The mitanin's tales brought home the challenges ahead as well as the seeds of hope. Mukta and Jaiman are not giving up.

Patralekha Chatterjee is an award-winning journalist/columnist, and photographer focusing on development issues. Currently, her writing focuses on the intersection of politics and public policy on a range of inter-linked development issues for Indian and international media.

(Views are personal)

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