India is among the hungriest countries in the world today and India's girl children and women are the most hungry among the people, experts here said on the occasion of World Food Day Tuesday.
The average weight of an Indian woman is less than the world standard of 50 kg, and the weight of an Indian baby at birth is less than even that of babies born in sub-Saharan countries.
These are some of the frightening figures experts churned out here to emphasise that the country's policymakers needed to shift focus from "food security" to "nutrition security" that could be maintained "through an individual's entire life cycle". Sixty years after independence, "the first task of an independent India must be to eliminate hunger", they said at a seminar on "Food for all and Forever", at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF).
Calling for "nutrition to be priority on the national agenda", experts here called for immediate setting up of a National Nutritional Authority and made seven recommendations, including a Citizens' Charter on nutrition endorsed by policymakers. To this end, M S Swaminathan, adviser to the government on food security, said a coalition of experts, political parties and government departments would be set up on November 6.
Parties like the Congress, PMK and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) would participate in the Nutrition Coalition, "which will brainstorm a clear policy decision to make nutrition a priority in the country's and parties' political agenda and common minimum programme before the next general elections in 2009)", Swaminathan said. The experts called for a specific strategy for nutrition security up to age two for every child, greater focus on the hunger of the urban poor and emphasis on nutrition education.
The Gandhigram Rural Institute Rajiv Gandhi Chair for Panchayat Raj Studies, G Palanithurai emphasised the need to "demystify food and nutrition security and get down to grassroots dissemination of how women need to be given better and more food for the health of the unborn as well as the baby up to two years of age". "Don't come up with more and more schemes.
There are schemes enough. Focus on how to get the common people to implement good dietary practises, clean water and hygiene," he said. The call was also for greater and better monitoring of all existing programmes. "It is a shame for the international community that in today's age and with today's technology, food still remains a mirage for more than 850 million people in the world," noted Gian Pietro Bordigno, UN World Food Programme's (WFP) India country director.
He recalled that the Food and Agricultural Organisation was the first among UN initiatives and was set up as early as in 1945 on Oct 16. During 2008-2012, "the strategic focus of the WFP will be to assist the Indian government in capacity development through technical assistance, to provide fortified supplementary food through the ICDS (integrated child development scheme) in partnership with Indian delivery agencies," said Bordigno.
"WFP will also provide support to enhance the livelihood of the marginalized poor through employment programmes that create lasting assets and help them cope with natural disasters," he said, pointing out that in Tamil Nadu, WFP supported the state AIDS Care Society to provide food to 20,000 affected people. Even sub-Saharan Africa had a better record of weight at birth.
India's was lower than Africa's "because in India, mothers are hungry and body weight of their children is lower than the world accepted standard", pointed out Rama Narayanan, adviser, food security at the MSSRF. For a woman to give birth to a healthy baby, she should herself weigh at least 50 kg at the time of conception and this should be maintained as long as the baby is breastfed, Narayanan said.
On the average, an Indian woman weighs only about 45 kg, as a result of which a hungry mother's baby in the womb is stunted or underweight and the baby's brain has not as developed as it should be at birth, so that for such an Indian baby, growing and productivity as an adult would be a lifelong challenge. "As much as 80 percent of a child's brain grows in the womb and up to the age of two years", this is the best time to make any interventions to assist a healthy birth and growth, experts said.
The recently done National Health Survey has shown that in many states, where development and growth indexes are better, states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu, many improvements have been made to address food security but "nutritional status of mothers and would-be mothers have not improved markedly". "Despite all the hype about growth, the ability of India to provide food for all is becoming more and more questionable," said Swarna Vepa, Ford Foundation Chair for Women and Sustainable Food Security, MSSRF.
Unless India was able to address repeated crop stock failures, rising prices and move away from over dependence on cereals and ensure better access to food, whether India would attain the millennium goal of "food security for half the population by 2015", had to be doubted, the expert said, calling for greater focus on nutrition, rather than production.
Vepa also pointed out that small farmers and landless families no longer kept any livestock, which was more and more being held by large farmers and corporate houses. In the long run, this would be detrimental to the country's nutrition security, she cautioned.