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How India is tackling its hunger and malnutrition crisis

India’s fight against hunger and malnutrition remains an uphill battle, with staggering statistics that paint a grim picture of the nation’s invisible crisis affecting millions, especially among the most vulnerable communities.

India’s dismal ranking of 111 out of 125 countries in the 2023 Global Hunger Index, with a ‘serious’ hunger level score of 28.7, is a sobering reminder of the challenges that lie ahead.

The crisis is particularly acute for migrant workers, women farmers, and their families, who often fall through the cracks of data collection and government schemes designed to combat malnutrition.

Mewat’s heatwaves and anemia struggles

In the rural district of Mewat, Haryana, the ongoing heatwave delivers a double whammy of hardship for women farmers grappling with anemia.

68.6% of women aged 15-49 and 79.9% of pregnant women in the same age group are anemic, according to the National Family Health Survey 5 (2019-21).

The combination of intense physical labor under scorching temperatures and nutritional deficiencies has led to severe health consequences, including life-threatening cases of heatstroke and severe anemia, requiring hospitalization.

Miskena, a 35-year-old mother of four, exemplifies this struggle. With a hemoglobin level of 8.5 grams per deciliter (below the normal range), she breastfeeds her nine-month-old son while toiling in the fields for seven to eight hours daily.

“It’s hard. I’m constantly exhausted and get these tingling sensations all over my body,” she laments.

Her story is not unique, as countless other women like Satram, 22, have faced similar ordeals, narrowly escaping death due to their anemic conditions exacerbated by the relentless heat.

Gujarat’s migrant workers’ plight

The plight of migrant workers and their families in Gujarat is a stark reminder of the invisible crisis that often goes unnoticed and underreported.

Sheila, a migrant worker from Bihar’s Manjhi village in Chhapra district, voiced her struggles: “Arhar dal (lentils) is 150 rupees per kilo. We buy milk packets for eleven rupees every day to make tea. It is not an item that we can buy [in adequate quantity] for our children to drink.”

Her words echo the harsh reality faced by thousands of disadvantaged migrant families in India, trapped in a cycle of poverty and malnutrition.

According to the NITI Aayog’s multidimensional index for 2023, Gujarat has a poor headcount ratio of 18.47 percent, with over 23 percent of people deprived and over 9 percent deprived of nutrition.

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – 5 data (2019-21) reveals a disturbing reality: 25 percent of children in Gujarat are “wasted” – excessively thin in relation to their height, posing a heightened risk of mortality.

Shockingly, 11 percent of children in the state are severely wasted, a condition that can lead to a host of long-term consequences.

What are the long-term consequences of malnutrition?

The consequences of childhood malnutrition extend far beyond physical growth and development, casting a long shadow over the lives of those affected.

Research has established links between malnutrition and cognitive impairments, including lower IQ levels, reduced cognitive function, behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, socialization issues, and poor emotional regulation.

These impacts can have profound effects on a child’s educational attainment, future employment prospects, and overall quality of life.

In severe cases of malnutrition, children suffer from protein deficiency, resulting in kwashiorkor – a condition characterized by a swollen abdomen due to excessive fluid retention.

This life-threatening condition can lead to organ failure and even death if left untreated.

The vicious cycle of malnutrition and poor hygiene further exacerbates the crisis, as research has established a direct link between the two, with each factor perpetuating the other.

As India grapples with this invisible crisis, urgent action is needed to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition through a multi-pronged approach.

Targeted interventions, such as improving access to nutritious food through subsidized distribution channels and fortification programs, strengthening social safety nets, and promoting sustainable agricultural practices, are crucial steps towards ensuring a future where no child or family is left behind.

Additionally, comprehensive data collection and monitoring systems that capture the experiences of migrant workers and other vulnerable communities are essential to inform evidence-based policymaking and tailored solutions.