Special Correspondent

46 per cent of children under the age of three in the country are malnourished, says Swaminathan

CHENNAI: As the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development observes its annual National Nutrition Week this week throughout the country, there is little to cheer about the state of the country’s nutrition, experts say.

Malnutrition in India is so acute that it has become a “silent emergency,” said M.S. Swaminathan, agricultural scientist and chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, speaking here on Monday. Fortysix per cent of children in India under the age of three were malnourished, while 72 per cent of children below 12 months and 77 per cent between the ages of one and two were anaemic.

“There is a need to divert the national focus from food security at the national level to nutrition security at the individual level,” Dr. Swaminathan said. “The problem in India is not a shortage of food, but economic and social access to it.” According to Dr. Swaminathan, there were an urgent need for national policy to focus on the feeding of infants and young children, micronutrient malnutrition and fortifying food to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

Chronic problem

Micronutrient deficiency in particular was a “chronic” problem in India and need to be immediately addressed, said S. Raja Gopalan, secretary, Centre for Research on Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development, and formerly of the Union Ministry of Agriculture. “While the body only requires a small amount of micronutrients, their absence has severe, debilitating effects on growth, including problems such as diabetes and heart disease, and on brain development,” Mr. Gopalan said.

“The national policy needs to effect micronutrient enrichment through public food programmes such as the Integrated Child Development Services, the noon-meal scheme and the Public Distribution System.”

While several industries had developed affordable fortification technologies to enrich food and drinks for middle and upper income groups, lower income groups and the undernourished had not benefited from technological advances, Mr. Gopalan said. Dr. Swaminathan said the delivery of ongoing nutrition support programmes had to be restructured to a “life-cycle approach,” so that the different nutrition requirements for all the phases of human life could be met. “I hope the NNW will create more awareness of these requirements,” he said. “But even that is not enough. What we need is political action.”