UNICEF Report Highlights India Among Key Nations Facing Severe Child Food Poverty

According to the UN agency, India and neighboring countries such as China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are among the 20 nations collectively housing 65% of the world's 181 million children experiencing "severe child food poverty".
Sartijo with her son's twin children in Sheopur Jaitwada. (Earlier these children were malnourished.)
Sartijo with her son's twin children in Sheopur Jaitwada. (Earlier these children were malnourished.)

New Delhi: The Mooknayak recently reported that the districts of Shivpuri and Sheopur, which are home to a significant Sahariya population, are grappling with the highest malnutrition rates in the state. The Sahariya community, categorized as one of India's most vulnerable tribal groups, continues to suffer from severe malnutrition despite various administrative and women and child development initiatives.

Regrettably, these efforts have proven inadequate, leaving the community in dire straits.

In Sheopur, where the Sahariya comprise the majority of the tribal population, the situation remains critical. Not long ago, this region was tragically labeled the “Ethiopia of India” due to its acute malnutrition crisis.

Officials from the Women and Child Development (WCD) department state there has been a decrease in malnutrition cases, citing 923 malnourished and 243 severely malnourished children reported in 2022. However, local reports paint a much bleaker picture.

Locals assert that the issue persists widely, with nearly every family in numerous villages having at least one malnourished member. During visits to five villages, malnourished children were found in nearly every household, and severely affected children required treatment at the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre of the Sheopur district hospital.

A recent report highlighted the severity of the issue, as evidenced by UNICEF's global 'Child Nutrition Report 2024'. According to the report, the percentage of children experiencing severe food poverty in 92 countries varies widely, from 1% in Belarus to 63% in Somalia, with India at a concerning 40%, categorized as 'high'. UNICEF's new metric on 'child food poverty' underscores the extensive food and nutrition crisis impacting children under five worldwide.

India, alongside neighboring countries such as China, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, ranks among the 20 nations where 65% of the 181 million children globally live in "severe child food poverty".

The findings of this global study hold particular significance for India, given the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) by the Union Health Ministry's indication that 35.5% of children under five are stunted, 19.3% are wasted and 32.1% are underweight.

Although there has been improvement from the NFHS (2015-16) figures, which reported 38.4% stunting, 21.0% wasting and 35.8% underweight, undernutrition remains a pressing concern.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, central government politicians have refrained from commenting on the UNICEF dietary diversity score, maintaining a pattern of dismissing global indices. For instance, the Global Hunger Index (GHI) serves as a comprehensive tool that measures and monitors hunger globally, regionally and nationally. In the 2022 edition, India ranked 107th out of 121 countries.

The 2023 index reported that India has the highest child wasting rate globally at 18.7%, indicating severe acute malnutrition. However, the Indian government rejected these findings, with the Women and Child Development Ministry criticizing the index for "serious methodological issues" and accusing it of having "malafide intent."

India's government has consistently denied these findings, arguing that the GHI does not accurately depict the country's situation. They contend that the index is flawed because three of the four indicators used specifically pertain to child health, which they assert cannot represent the entire population. Additionally, they criticize the fourth indicator, the Proportion of Undernourished (PoU) population, as being based on a small opinion poll sample of 3,000 people.

Beyond the GHI, the government has also rejected other global socio-economic and political indices that ranked India poorly, including the Corruption Perception Index, Global Pension Index, V-Dem’s Democracy Report and the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

These dismissals reflect a broader governmental narrative that all is well ("sab changa hai"), which persists until there is consistent and widespread questioning from the public.

The refusal to accept these indices demonstrates a reluctance to acknowledge and address the serious issues of hunger and malnutrition. This stance undermines efforts to combat these critical problems, leaving vulnerable populations, such as the Sahariya community in Sheopur and Shivpuri districts, to continue suffering despite evident needs and reported crises.

How is the Research Formulated?

The report utilizes a metric developed by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) to measure 'child food poverty', evaluating dietary diversity. According to this metric, children need to consume foods from at least five out of eight specified food groups for healthy growth and development. These comprehensive food groups include:

Breastmilk: Critical for infants, providing essential antibodies and nutrients for early development.

Dairy: Includes milk, cheese and yogurt, crucial for calcium and protein intake, supporting bone health and overall growth.

Pulses: Such as beans, lentils and peas, rich in protein, fiber, and essential micronutrients like iron and folate.

Grains: Including rice, wheat, oats and corn, providing carbohydrates for energy, along with B vitamins and minerals.

Eggs: Highly nutritious, offering high-quality protein, healthy fats and various vitamins and minerals.

Meat, Poultry and Fish: Sources of protein and essential nutrients like iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for cognitive development and overall health.

Vitamin A-rich Fruits: Such as mangoes, papayas and carrots, important for vision, immune function, and cell growth.

Other Fruits and Vegetables: Provide vitamins, minerals and fiber supporting various bodily functions and overall health.

This dietary diversity score serves as a vital indicator of nutritional adequacy and variety, essential for preventing malnutrition and ensuring proper development in children.

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