INDIA: Woeful child malnutrition persists amidst wonderful schemes

A social justice bench of the Supreme Court of India comprising justices Madan B. Lokur and U.U. Lalit recently lambasted the government yet again for its failure in implementing welfare schemes for children belonging to the lower strata of society. The Court stressed the “mismatch” between the “wonderful schemes” the government creates and the ground realities that remain unchanged.

Hauling up the union government, particularly over the serious underperformance of the 2010-11 introduced Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls (RGSEAG), also known as ‘Sabla’, the Bench told the Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta that “All the ideas you have seems [sic] OK. Government of India has wonderful laws, ideas and schemes but the things are different on the ground.”

The Court is not off the mark. The recently released findings of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) – 3, 2005-06, show that Sabla is just one of the plethora of union and state welfare schemes that have failed to make much difference on the ground.

Consider this gem from the Survey summary:

“Among children under age six years in areas covered by an anganwadi centre, one in four (26 percent) received supplementary food from an AWC, one in five received an immunization from an AWC, and one in six went to an AWC for a health check-up in the 12 months preceding the survey.”

In other words, only 26% children under 6 years, in the areas covered by an anganwadi centre, received supplementary food, while immunization coverage was even worse at 20%.

Put the two failures together – one which makes children chronically vulnerable to diseases and the other that denies them protection from a few life threatening ones – and the recipe for disaster is complete. It is in this context that the NFHS-3 finding of 43% of Indian children being underweight comes as no surprise.

Sadly, the authorities not made a serious attempt to snatch children out of the malnutrition-stunting cycle despite being aware of the gravity of the situation for long. One may recall how Dr. Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister of India, had referred to almost half of Indian children being malnourished as a national shame and how incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee had, in his acceptance speech, called hunger the biggest humiliation.

What did they do after recognising the problem? Virtually nothing is the answer that a study the last government commissioned to the UNICEF states bold and clear. This study corroborates the findings of NFHS-3.

Called the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC), this study was conducted in 2013 and 2014 with the aim of getting interim workable figures prior to the results of the ongoing NFHS-4. Despite the limitation of having a sample size much smaller than that of the NFHS, the RSOC gives a broad idea of which way the wind is blowing for India’s underprivileged children. And, it has done so, but with a caveat.

The Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance government of India withheld the RSOC report from publication for a long time as it exposed the hollowness of its claims and that of the last government led by Indian National Congress, a rival political party. The government released the report only after it got leaked and media groups got access.

The report raises serious questions about both the implementation of the schemes earmarked for snatching children out of the jaws of hunger and starvation and the further assault on the same by the incumbent government. While noticing a significant decline in overall malnutrition among children from 42.5% to 29.4%, the report also underscores phenomenal failures on other indicators. As many as 15% of Indian children remain wasted, while a whopping 38.7% are stunted. The RSOC data also shows that while stunting is much higher in rural areas (41.7%), urban India is not faring much better (32.1%).

This brings us back to the basics. There is no dearth of schemes. But, they are worth nothing without financing and implementation on the ground. For instance, instead of salvaging the National Nutrition Mission, a multi-sectoral programme earmarked for 200 high-burden districts, the government is reported to have decided to scrap it altogether. Any such move by the government, which has already slashed the budget for the all important Integrated Child Development Scheme by almost half, would add considerably to the malnutrition woes of the country and jeopardize many schemes aimed at saving children.

Why do governments not implement such schemes with all the seriousness they deserve? Child malnutrition never gets the political will it requires, despite being acknowledged as a national shame. Is it because it affects the poor who cannot drag governments to courts? Or is it because, despite being a national problem, it affects individual families/communities in such a way that they cannot seek redress together?

It is in this context that the Supreme Court of India must also realise that asking uncomfortable questions on malnutrition is welcome but itself not enough. The Executive has failed these children once too many a time, and the Judiciary must stand up for them now, as it has in various corruption cases in recent times.

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Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-161-2015
Countries : India,
Issues : Administration of justice, Child rights, Institutional reform, Right to education, Right to food, Right to life, Rule of law,