Hunger is no game

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that it was a “national shame” that so many children in our country were dying of malnourishment and that for so many, hunger was a grim fact of everyday life. When we talk of food, we must also talk of its absence, of the fact that millions in the country cannot take even one meal a day for granted. In order to document the extent of the problem of malnutrition, and to bring public attention – and therefore action – to the issue, Naandi Foundation undertook what came to be known as the HUNGaMA (an acronym for Hunger and Malnutrition) survey. Based on interviews with 74,020 mothers and 109,093 children across India, the survey helped build a profile of hunger and malnutrition in the country, a step toward understanding why our 65-year-old democracy has still not been able to adequately feed all its citizens.

The 2005-06 National Family Health Survey (http://www.rchiips.org/NFHS/index.shtml) had reported that 20% of Indian children were acutely malnourished, 48% suffered from chronic malnutrition and a full 43% were underweight. Apart from being responsible for close to one half of all child deaths, malnutrition had an impact on cognitive and physical development. The HUNGaMA survey (http://www.hungamaforchange.org/index.html) sought to update this information and go beyond it to gain a qualitative insight into the lives of families impacted by hunger. The survey, conducted in 2011, covering 112 rural districts across seven states in northern India, “provides reliable estimates covering nearly 20% of Indian children.”

The key findings of the survey were as follows:

  • Child malnutrition is widespread across districts, with nearly 42% of children in rural areas being underweight and 59% stunted.
  • Over the years, the prevalence of malnutrition has decreased, suggesting that there is a slight improvement in nutritional status.
  • Child malnutrition starts in infancy, with children beginning to show signs of inadequate weight gain at less than 2 years.
  • Household socio-economic status has a significant impact on child nutritional status.
  • While girls have a better nutritional status in the first few months of life, this quickly fades with age, with girls receiving progressively less nutrition than boys even in infancy.
  • Mother’s education level determines the child’s nutrition.

The HUNGaMA survey findings suggested that interventions to curb malnutrition among children were most important in the first years, with more support being given to mothers of newborns and better monitoring services being provided, for instance through Anganwadis. Education and skill building among mothers could help them understand the importance of regular weight monitoring, the need for supplementary foods for their baby, and empower them to take on a more active role within the family, in terms of making nutritional decisions.

The report stressed that providing more information and creating awareness and attention about nutrition was an important first step in addressing the huge nutritional deficit in the country.

Of what relevance is the HUNGaMA report and information about malnutrition in the classroom? When talking about food, we cannot and perhaps must not avoid talking about the lack of or absence of it too. Depending on the context within which your class is located (urban/rural), you can use the report as a talking point and ask children to research and discuss questions such as the following:

  • What do they understand by malnutrition? Do they consider it a big problem in their own state/city/locality?
  • What is food security all about?
  • Should the government be involved in making sure that all people have enough food? How can this be done?
  • Is the right to food a fundamental right? How can this be guaranteed by the government?

You could also get them to think about the issue of the minimum daily dietary requirements and how their own diet relates to that. The report could be used in economics and political science classes, as well as EVS classes, to discuss issues related to the public distribution system, the mid-day meal scheme in schools, the relationship between agriculture and food security, and many other issues.

It would be a great way to raise a hungama around the issue in your own way!