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Let's talk about food Manoj Kumar; (right) Aamir Khan flanked by Shahnawaz Hussain, Supriya Sule and Sachin Pilot at Parliament House Photo: V. Sudershan

Let's talk about food Manoj Kumar; (right) Aamir Khan flanked by Shahnawaz Hussain, Supriya Sule and Sachin Pilot at Parliament House Photo: V. Sudershan  

Issue Hunger and malnutrition aren't contagious and hence don't make headlines. But it's high time we made a HUNGaMA. Sangeetha Devi Dundoo reports

M alnutrition, at its core, is a gender issue that can be solved only when women are empowered, believes Manoj Kumar, CEO, Naandi Foundation. He shares a startling observation he made while visiting backward districts in the heart of India, “When a woman delivers a girl child in her first pregnancy, she stops breast feeding the child after two months. On prodding, women revealed being under pressure to deliver a baby boy next and are forced by their respective families to stop breastfeeding, believed to work like a contraceptive.”

Manoj and the team of HUNGaMA travelled through some of the most backward districts as part of the project to fight against hunger and malnutrition. “I've travelled extensively in rural areas in the last 20 years and didn't know gender disparity was so deep rooted,” says Manoj. Project HUNGaMA has been an eye opener for him and the think tank Citizens' Alliance team that includes young MPs.

Create a HUNGaMA

The project was initiated when Naandi realised that, in many areas where it organised mid day meals, it was the only meal of the day for children. “We drove through remote areas where we saw barren land, similar to a scene from Mackenna's Gold, with no sign of vegetation. After a few miles we would chance upon isolated huts. Hunger is a serious issue and so are malnourished children. Malnutrition isn't contagious like H1N1 or Bird flu and hence not headline grabbing,” asserts Manoj. Mid-day meals, he realised, reach only those children that have survived malnutrition. The target age group, he feels, is zero to five.

If the solution lies in timely intervention at the district health care level and long term focus on gender and agrarian issues, the lack of workable data is a dampener. The only source of information is the National Family Health Survey. “The last results are from 2005-06. By the time this data is used for any implementation programme, those children would be gone. And the data is state wise rather than district wise. Even chief ministers we spoke to confessed to not having data at the district level.”

Realising that collecting scientific data is an extensive and expensive proposition, Naandi roped in an American research body to interview 1 lakh mothers and their children from 100 most backward districts. “Seventy five percent of malnourished children come from six states — Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra and Chattisgarh marginally escaped this list. We also collected information from the 12 best districts (from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh) to know how they address the issue,” elaborates Manoj.

The data collection will end by February 15 and the results will be tabulated by March.

What next?

The emphasis will be to create awareness on the need to breastfeed infants. “It's the best source of nutrition and immunity for the child. Many mothers don't know that the pehla doodh, often discarded as impure, has everything to protect the child. Mothers supplement breast milk with water, which inadvertently comes from contaminated sources,” says Manoj.

The Citizens' Alliance wants to make malnutrition a talking point in the country. “We met the Prime Minister, urging him to address malnutrition at the National Development Council meeting. It's time we made a HUNGaMA,” concludes Manoj.

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