Spreading The Word On Malnutrition: Why We Must Drive The Message Home — Loud And Clear 

by Banuchandar Nagarajan - Feb 12, 2020 03:03 PM +05:30 IST
Spreading The Word On Malnutrition: Why We Must Drive The Message Home — Loud And Clear Malnourished children.
  • Malnutrition is holding India back from realising its full human resource potential and is one of the most critical areas to address.

    While discussing insensitivity to malnutrition in first of a three-part article, the author says why it’s important to drive the message home — loud and clear.

“தனி ஒரு மனிதனுக்கு உணவில்லை எனில் இந்த ஜகத்தினை அழித்திடுவோம்”

“Even if one person is deprived of food, we shall destroy the world,” sang the angry Subramanya Bharathi. Hunger and malnutrition are present all around us in cities and towns. They offer us visceral reminders of the extreme suffering of our fellow citizens that are far away. They are just part of statistics such as: more than one-third of India’s children under five years are malnourished.

Once a reader comes across such a number, it is quite possible she stops reading the article any further. There is a certain discomfort in dealing with something that affects us deeply at a subconscious level, coupled with a sense of powerlessness to find a solution to the wicked problem as individuals.

Indian society, or for that matter any society, is not callous about the problem at all. Our day-to-day mercies are shown on the poor and deprived. Offering food to the needy is part of the practices in our temples, mosques and gurudwaras. Before they eat, many pray that no one goes hungry.

But somehow, as a nation, we are yet to muster the iron will to address the problem single-mindedly. The compassion has not transformed itself to the constant prodding that is required of the civil society towards the government. Hunger and malnutrition, much like education, has not become an electoral issue.

One wonders why. More than one-third of our children under five years being malnourished must be a huge issue. Is it because we assume that economic growth and rising prosperity will automatically lift all boats? Is it because of our belief in fate? Is it an uncomfortable truth that we don’t want to confront? Are we just too proud to find ourselves in the bottom of the Global Hunger Index rankings that we exert all our energies on poking at faults at the methodology?

With children, there are too many misconceptions and cultural taboos that plague the perceptions in child malnutrition. Many think, they will become better as they grow up.

But once we start talking statistics, like the above – more than one-third of Indian children under five years are malnourished – somehow the magic of empathy seems to get lost. Why do statistics kill communication? Why is the appeal to the rational, dead on arrival? If not through numbers, how can we communicate scale?

This is one of the frustrations of non-profits and philanthropists that work on communicating the problems of hunger, stunting and malnutrition.

People involved in the development sector are motivated by deep emotions triggered by the social failure to solve the most fundamental of problems. Being passionate individuals that are driven to work in the field seeing the deprivation and the scale of it exposed through various reports, they are frustrated that other people can’t see what they do. Mirror-imaging bias, perhaps?

Why do we prefer cheap combats ‘the bread and circuses’ to grave issues that confront us? If we go looking for answers from evolutionary psychology, we end up with a smug “we are wired like that to deal with danger”. If we listen to the behaviour theorists, they tell us not to seek for logic from irrational beings. Or if we take the neurobiology way, we can pass the buck on to the limbic system. These biases and quirks have somehow become props for our moral laziness in summoning our better (and rational) angels.

Late last year, the government released the findings of the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey. Chronic malnutrition under five years of age declined by only one-third between 1992 and 2016 – the time India took to rise up from a third-world backwater and to smell superpower.

The numbers are stark for Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In the National Nutrition Strategy report of NITI Aayog, except from Bellary and Bagalkote in Karnataka, none of the districts from southern India find the place in the bottom 100 districts.

The solutions are known. The many reports of Ministry of Women and Child Development and UNICEF offer detailed prescriptions and pointed solutions. Other states of India from Sikkim to Kerala have dealt with the problem effectively. So there is no dearth of knowhow.

This column is about communicating about malnutrition and keeping it in the top of national consciousness. Let us talk about media coverage of the issue. Hunger comes to the fore only when there are egregious deaths and even then the news has a shelf life of a few hours.

An issue affecting millions of children does not even get a fraction of coverage of say a Shaheen Bagh or breaking of furniture in a library in Aligarh Muslim University. Why? What does it say about our media and our own baser instincts they cater to?

Journalist P Sainath explained it away by saying that media is good at covering events than processes, when asked about lack of coverage on farm distress in Vidarbha. But Manu Joseph makes a deeper point. He says, “a story is a very corrupt thing. A story is not an event, but an interesting event. And, here lies its deviousness. What is interesting in a story is not what is important in life.” That explains why this article by Soumya Swaminathan did not become viral.

Malnutrition is holding India back from realising its full human resource potential and is one of the most critical areas to address for India to realise its demographic dividend. It is important that our brightest minds work on it.

It is also important to be persistent in communication, like saying repeatedly that more than one-third of our kids under five years are malnourished. Former US president Barack Obama did not win by chanting, “Yes, we can” only once!

(In the next part we will deal with the role of NGOs and philanthropists).

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy adviser. An alumnus of Harvard University, he has worked in the World Bank, PwC and the UN. Follow him @Banuall.

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