Gujarat, statistically among the wealthiest states in the country, continues to struggle with malnutrition among its children.
According to Reserve Bank of India data, the state had the highest per-capita net state domestic product (NSDP) in the country in 2019-20. Ironically, it also has around 1.25 lakh malnourished children across its 30 districts, as the state government revealed in response to a question in the Assembly last month. Of these children, around 24,000 are severely malnourished.
Minister blames COVID
Women and Child Development Minister Bhanuben Babariya blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for the alarming number of malnutrition cases in the state. But notably, malnutrition among children has been a persistent issue in Gujarat.
“It is impossible to say if there has been an increase or decrease in the number of malnourished children in the past two years, as Anganwadi centres were closed from March 15, 2020 to February 2, 2022, owing to the pandemic. However, during the pandemic, sukhdi, a traditional sweet dish, was distributed among children,” Babariya stated.
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She revealed that Narmada district topped the list with 12,492 malnourished children, followed by Vadodara with 11,322 cases, Anand with 9,615 cases, Sabarkantha with 7,270, Surat with 6,967, and Bharuch with 5,863 cases.
It’s the tribal districts that have the greater number of children with malnutrition. Narmada district, which has a 93% tribal population, has been recording the highest number of stunted children within the state since 2014. Ironically, Narmada is also the district that boasts the ₹3,000-crore Statue of Unity.
Gujarat’s unenviable record
According to the National Family Health Survey, or NFHS-5, report of 2019-20, 39.97 per cent of children under the age of five in Gujarat are malnourished, which is the second-highest in the country. Topping the list is Bihar.
Gujarat also has the fourth-highest number of stunted and wasted children in the country. The tribal districts of Dahod and Panchmahal have the highest numbers of stunted children. As many as 44.4 per cent of children in Dahod are stunted and 50.8 per cent are underweight. In Panchmahal, 40.4 per cent of the children are stunted and 42.3 per cent are underweight.
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The report also revealed that only about 6 per cent of babies in the 6-23-month age-group were getting an adequate diet in Gujarat as compared to the national average of over 11 per cent. Adding to that, 80 per cent of children under 5 years suffer from anaemia, a condition they usually inherit from anaemic mothers. About 63 per cent of pregnant women in Gujarat suffer from anaemia as opposed to the national average of 52 per cent.
The added curse of anaemia
In 2021, a report by the International Institute of Popular Science (IIPS) held that anaemia among children in Gujarat had increased by 10 per cent in the preceding 14 years, while anaemia among pregnant women also increased by 10 per cent.
NFHS-4 data, released in 2015-16, showed that 39.3 per cent of children in Gujarat were underweight as opposed to the national average of 35.7 per cent.
In October 2013, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report found that every third child in the state was underweight.
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A report in The Lancet titled ‘The Burden of Child and Maternal Malnutrition and Trends in its Indicators in the States of India: The Global Burden of Disease Study 1990-2017’ also placed Gujarat at the top in terms of the number of wasted children and sixth in the number of stunted children.
Scheme after scheme
To address the issue of malnourishment, the Bhupendra Patel government in the state launched the Suposhan Abhiyaan in May 2022. As part of it, state BJP president CR Patil asked party workers to identify and take care of at least one malnourished child each so that malnutrition could be eradicated from the state in 90 days.
Two months before that, in March 2022, the Gujarat government launched Vachan — Vital Actions for Child Health and Nutrition to tackle malnutrition. In June, ahead of the Assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a new scheme for pregnant women at an event in Kevadiya, Narmada district.
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The new scheme, with a fund of ₹800 crore, was announced under the Mukhyamantri Matrushakti Yojana. As part of it, pregnant and lactating mothers were to be given 2 kg of chickpeas, 1 kg of tur dal, and 1 litre of edible oil free of cost every month from Anganwadi centres for up to two years after pregnancy.
Much on paper, little on ground
If Gujarat suffers from malnutrition and anaemia among women and children, it’s not for want of schemes. The systemic failure in implementing these schemes on the ground is the root cause for the issue.
A 2014 report by the Surat-based Centre for Social Studies (CSS), an autonomous social science research institute supported the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), stated that the primary reason for the large number of malnourished children in Gujarat is poor implementation of the midday meal programme and lack of education in the districts.
Especially in the tribal districts, the loss of traditional food resources by way of ecological change or environmental degradation have had a considerable influence on the dietary patterns and also contributed to the falling levels of nutrition. The report had also stated that in the Dediapada taluka of Narmada district, malnourishment among children was as high as 94 per cent in 2013-14.
Diligent implementation of woman and child welfare schemes may be the need of the hour for the state to improve its health matrices.