God that we forget to worship

Malnutrition among children from poor families is pervasive and a matter of great concern. Agencies like the British Department for International Development (DFID) are funding projects to combat malnutrition aro­und the world. In a book called Repositioning Nutrition as Central to Development: A Strategy for Large-Scale Action, the World Bank has quoted Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze, “Nearly four million people die prematurely in India every year from malnutrition and related problems. That’s more than the number who perished during the entire Bengal famine.”

The report goes on to say, “Malnutrition remains the world’s most serious health problem and the single biggest contributor to child mortality. Nearly one-third of children in the developing world are either underweight or stunted. More than 30 per cent of the developing world’s population suffers from micronutrient deficiencies. Unless policies and priorities are changed, the scale of the problem will prevent many countries from achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).”

There are one billion people in the world who are deprived of nourishment. At the same time, there are another one billion people who eat more than what is good for them and are obese. Our global population is seven billion. Three billion pe­ople either have too little to eat or eat too much or eat unhealthily. Is it not time to wake up and smell the coffee?

Human rights activist Binayak Sen is also a medical practitioner in a poor tribal region of India. “When it comes to the scheduled tribe population, 50 per cent of tribal people are found to have BMI (Body Mass Index) under 18.5 points, an indication of acute malnutrition. In the same criteria, 60 per cent of scheduled caste population are below the standard BMI,” Sen says. According to World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, this is a serious state of affairs. Inflation of food prices should be viewed from this lens as well. India ranks 94 out of 119 countries in the Global Hunger Index.

The statistics are devastating. More than 160 million children in poor nations suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Half a million become blind every year. Another million die because of lack of nutrition. More than one-third of the world’s children are underweight and according to the World Bank report, the damage of malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of their lives is irreversible. And at the same time, people who are affluent eat more junk food. They lead sedentary lifestyles and develop diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases. India is already the diabetes capital of the world and heart diseases in our country are killing more and more people. That is the bad news.

But there is good news too. If we can provide micronutrients to our children and vitamin supplements, then the return on those investments are high. According to the World Bank report, preventing micronutrient deficiencies in China alone will be worth between $2.5 and $5 billion annually in increased gross domestic product (GDP). Studies have suggested that micronutrient deficiencies alone may cost India $2.5 billion annually or about 0.4 per cent of India’s annual GDP. One estimate suggests that productivity losses in India, associated with malnutrition, iron deficiency, anaemia and iodine deficiency disorders (IDD), are a staggering $114 billion between 2003 and now.

There have been some notable experiments in impoverished countries to provide nutrients to poor children at an affordable cost. Here is one story: In 2005, professor Muh­ammad Yunus met with Fr­anck Riboud, the chairman of Danone, the French company famous for its dairy products and bottled water. Over lunch in Paris, the two decided to join forces and create a highly-fortified, very affordable yogurt for Bangladeshi children. It is called “Shakti Doi” (the yogurt that provides strength).

Closer home, we have the Akshaya Patra Foundation. It is a non-profit organisation (NGO) providing hot, nutritious freshly-cooked classroom lunches for nearly 1.3 million children. It runs the world’s largest NGO midday meal programme for underprivileged school children in India.

There are other examples around the world. Brazil la­unched Fome Zero designed to combat extreme poverty and hunger. Fome Zero in Portuguese (the national language of Brazil) means “zero hu­nger”. The programme, introduced by president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, is led by the appropriately na­med ministry of social development and fight against hu­nger. It implements the government’s commitment to guarantee the right of access to basic food. The programme intervenes in a number of ways. It, of course, provides direct financial assistance to the poorest families. But, it also pursues diverse strategies such as creating water sources in Brazil’s semi-arid regions, supports low-cost restaurants, educates people about healthy eating habits, distributes vitamins and iron supplements, supports subsistence family farming and provides access to microcredit. Fome Zero is the biggest initiative by the Brazilian government to combat hunger in the history of the country.

We are also trying to provide legal guarantees in the form of the National Food Security Bill. While enshrining the ri­ghts in the statute books is a step in the right direction, it will also be important to implement the laws and not be mesmerised by GDP growth numbers. That is where we are stumbling. Let us remember what the father of our nation said, “God comes to the hungry in the form of food.” We should not forget to worship that God.


(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)