Deepmala 51 – Nutritional Security for India

Four years ago, I was giving a special evening lecture in Chennai. Bharat Ratna C. Subramaniam was presiding over the lecture and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan was the guest of honour. I talked about the future of India and the role the Indian mind will play in it. I argued that the twenty first century will be the century of knowledge and indeed the century of mind. I referred to ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture, ‘Blue Revolution’ in our successful space programme, ‘While Revolution’ in milk production and then I said, now we require a ‘Grey Revolution’. I was referring to the Indian grey matter in the brain. I was saying that we need to have such a revolution to use our brainpower to give India a leading position in the comity of nations.

After my lecture, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan gave the closing remarks. While agreeing with the concept of ‘grey revolution’, he talked about the problems in making it happen in India. His reason was simple. Development of brain is crucially dependent upon the way the baby grows in the womb of the mother. If the nutritional requirements are not met, then the brain does not develop. Then he gave some striking statistics by saying that almost one third of the babies in India are born with inadequate development of the brain due to malnourishment. If this continued, then how could a ‘grey revolution’ take place, he asked.

The latest statistics has come out now. Dr. Swaminathan was right. Nearly one-third of the children born in India weigh less than 2.4 kg at birth when the desired weight is at least 3.2 kg for a healthy infant. It is obvious that such children need a special focus on nutrition in their early childhood to make up for this deficiency.

Protein energy malnutrition is an important nutrition problem among pre-school children. This leads to various degrees of growth retardation: when growth retardation is severe, poor intellectual development results. The problem is more pronounced among the rural poor, and especially so among the pregnant and nursing women, and growing children. According to a recent National Family Health Survey, 53 per cent of the children under the age of four are malnourished and underweight and 52 per cent of the children in this age group are stunted. How will we then to build the new India that will be able to compete in the new century of knowledge, especially with such a high population of inadequately prepared children?

How do we deal with the malnutrition of the young in a country which is as large and as poor as ours? The society and the government has a big role to play in this. This requires social innovation. And that is exactly what happened eighty years ago. In 1925, a midday meal programme was introduced for children belonging to poor socio-economic status in Madras Corporation area. In 1928, Keshav Academy of Calcutta introduced compulsory midday tiffin for schoolboys on payment basis at the rate of four annas per child per month. In 1941, in parts of Kerala, the school lunch programme was started. In 1942, Bombay started implementing a free midday meal scheme. A midday meal scheme was introduced in Bangalore city in 1946. In the 1950s, many states came to introduce midday meal progammes with the assistance of different international agencies.

The midday meal scheme is a path-breaking innovation aimed at correcting the nutritional imbalance among growing children. Though the imbalance occurs mostly among pre-school children, the midday meal programme can effectively correct the child to overcome the deficiencies early in life. This is indeed a laudable scheme which ensures a better health for our future citizens.

Here is something more that the midday meal scheme does. I have always lamented the fact that 50% children in India go to school, 30% of them go up to 10th standard and 40% of them pass. This means a large dropout from schools. It has been seen that the drop out rates reduce significantly in those schools, where there is a midday meal scheme. This is obvious, since the midday meal scheme provides a powerful incentive for the poor parents to send their children in school.

The Supreme Court, in a recent landmark judgement, had suggested that all state governments should implement this scheme, and provide cooked food to the students. The Supreme Court warned the states further. It said that it could ask the Centre to stop grants to those states who did not implement this scheme. This is a welcome step. However, I do believe that the whole society must rise to help this noble cause. I also believe that industry must adopt several schools and support such schemes. It is their duty also to see that they contribute to developing the Indian brain power of the future of which they will be the users.

We understand the importance of defense security, economic security, health security, environmental security and so on. We do not talk about nutritional security. But without nutritional security, other securities are of no value. Let us all work together to make India a nation that is nutritionally secure in the twenty first cent