The government’s three top committees on nutrition responsible for providing policy directions, monitoring the implementation of various schemes and reviewing the nutritional status of various States and Union Territories have failed to meet even once since the COVID-19 pandemic, while they are required to meet every quarter, despite global warnings of rising levels of hunger, malnutrition and child mortality.
Also Read | Thousand days of nutrition, and a billion dreams
A leading member of one of these bodies, Chandrakant S Pandav, who is also known as the “Iodine Man of India”, told The Hindu that “he is depressed and angry” at the “collapse” of the nutrition system as the “situation has gone from bad to worse, which could have been prevented.”
Another member of the Executive Committee of the National Nutrition Mission said on the condition of anonymity that “structures created by the PM under the Nutrition Mission need to be used and not be kept idle.” Both members said they had raised their concerns with the heads of these committees urging them to call an urgent meeting.
The three top committees are: Vice-Chairman of NITI Aayog Rajiv Kumar-headed National Nutrition Council (NNC), which also includes 12 Union Ministers and five Chief Ministers on a rotational basis; the Executive Committee (EC) of the National Nutrition Mission headed by Secretary of the Ministry of Women and Child Development Ram Mohan Mishra; and the National Technical Board on Nutrition (NTBN), headed by Member, NITI Aayog, V K Paul.
These committees were set up after the Cabinet approved the National Nutrition Mission in December 2017 and were mandated to meet once every quarter. They have to supervise the policy framework and the implementation of the government programmes, review the performance of various States, give scientific and technical recommendations for the execution of various schemes and propose corrective measures.
Also Read | India needs to rethink its nutrition agenda
The NNC held its last meeting in October 2019, and the EC met last in February 2020. According to the NITI Aayog’s website, the NTBN has met only twice and its last meeting was held in August 2018.
‘Nutrition an integral part of health’
“I strongly feel that the NNC should have held a meeting, because nutrition is an integral part of health,” Dr. Pandav told The Hindu in a telephonic interview. When asked if the meetings were scuttled because of the focus on COVID-19, he said, “COVID-19 is the reason why these meetings should have been held urgently. COVID-19 has scuttled everything. I am depressed and angry. The situation [poverty and hunger] has gone from bad to worse, which could have been prevented. We could have used imaginative ways of engaging communities, but we lost the opportunity to reach them. We could have given the best of services,” lamented Dr. Pandav.
Another expert, who is a member of the EC that met last in February 2020, was similarly at unease and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Also Read | Putting food at the centre of India’s nutrition agenda
“Before COVID-19 there was a tempo around nutrition, which to some extent has slowed down. But there is a need to realise that COVID-19 has put a lot of pressure on the under-privileged, especially women and children, who need nourishment at a time income levels have gone down. We need to put our heads together to ensure this.” He added, “the structure created by the Prime Minister needs to be properly used and not kept idle. These are tools of supervision. It is not the Centre's job to implement, but the Centre has to monitor whether anganwadis [centres where food and dry ration are delivered] are functioning or not, what are the problems and what remedial action can be taken.”
The UNICEF warned in July last that 6.7 million additional children under five could suffer from wasting and there could be nearly 10,000 more under-five deaths a month globally as a result of the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. The recent National Family Health Survey-5 data shows that even before COVID-19, 16 out of 22 States surveyed had witnessed worsening levels of wasting among under five children and 13 showed a surge in stunting among children.
The Hunger Watch Survey conducted by the Right to Food Campaign also shows that even five months after the lockdown was lifted, people continued to go to bed on an empty stomach, and more than 60% of the 4,000 respondents across 11 States said their consumption of pulses and vegetables had gone down.