Research shows India in the midst of ironical parallel battles against mass obesity and malnourishment

A recent study has brought to fore a paradoxical situation in the state of health of Indians where lifestyle diseases like heart ailments are fast overtaking poverty-related killers like diarrhoea and tuberculosis.

This finding in a study by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi leaves one even more astonished when encountered with another data that almost half of India’s children aged less than five years are chronically malnourished and the country has twice the number of underweight children as there in sub-Saharan Africa.

Incidentally, as high as 22 per cent urban Indians were found to be overweight with seven per cent among them being obese. It, thus, leaves India in an ironical burden of parallel battles against mass obesity and malnutrition.

“One reason for the persistence of this double malady could be the absence of collaborative innovation by stakeholders — voluntary organisations, academia, business firms, government agencies and health care organisations,” said Professor Laurette Dube, McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. She pointed out that the solution lies in collaborative innovation.

Dr. Dube held that the costs associated with obesity, over-nutrition and non-communicable diseases were spreading to low to middle income countries like India. But unlike the West, which had over three centuries to adapt to the adjustment, these countries will have only a few decades for their transition from subsistence agriculture to industrialised societies.

While pointing out that countries like India were competent at resource-effective means of innovation, she underscored the necessity of policies in line with convergence of health, wealth, industry and agriculture. “Focus should not be just on developing life-saving vaccines, but also on developing means of convenience and care. Health care must not be restricted to philanthropy.”

Dr. Dube started the McGill World Platform (MWP) for Health and Economic Convergence three years ago to work on a research-based agenda on ‘whole-of society’ approach to prevention. It has since joined forces with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — turning to challenges of accelerating nutrition security by promoting sustainable development of the farming and food sectors in the developing world.

Dr. Prabhu Pingali, deputy director of agricultural development in Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talked about the role of marketing in reaching out to the poor. He elaborated the role of private sector in seeking developing goals at the interface of health, agriculture and nutrition.

In 2011, PepsiCo India launched Iron chusti fortified snacks priced at Rs. 2 in Andhra Pradesh. This was supported by extensive efforts to build awareness on iron deficiency, anaemia and its symptoms.

The plenary session of MWP highlighted the need of public sector to educate while private sector could provide nutritious food and drink that is also appealing, delicious and accessible. Another initiative discussed improving the iron status of Indian pearl-millet given that 58 per cent of pregnant women and 79 per cent children aged below three years are anaemic.

The MWP also plans to extend a Whole-of-Society knowledge architecture, which includes a real time population health record and indicator of food quality and market practices, to Palwal district in Haryana. The Mother-Child Tracking System was also part of its agenda to ensure delivery of critical pre-natal medical services to vulnerable communities.

However, scaling up of mobile technology to track rural maternal and child health and linking them to health delivery systems poses a challenge. At present, Karnataka is the only State that utilises SMS messaging to update pregnancy related records.

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