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Please Sir, I Want Some More

By Shruti Vishwanath

I have a confession to make. This is not 1838 when Oliver Twist was written (and the above quote) and I am not talking about hungry Oliver and his orphaned friends in a seedy, third rate orphanage. This is India in 2010. So what, I care to ask. Is it any better?
Don’t go fooling yourself. You (and I) have 3 square meals a day (even hostelites), and we can afford the occasional pizza, ice cream and booze. But here are some statistics. Proven data, no sympathy pleas (yet). 43% of children in India are malnourished, accounting for 32% of the world’s malnourished children.
 To buy food amounting to 2200 Kcal a day and sufficient vitamins, minerals etc, a person needs money. About 40% of India lives on less than $1 a day. For infants and pregnant or lactating mothers, one needs to be extremely careful. Enough vitamins and minerals in the diet. For adolescent girls, enough iron.
One may argue that the Indian government has taken its steps. The Right to Food act. Offshoots of it being the midday meal scheme for schoolchildren and (a highly flawed) Public Distribution System,  ridden with corruption. But possibly the state of the hungry is far too daunting a problem for any government to face. So rather than being cynical, the question we must ask ourselves is, what can be done?
In a study I am carrying out for a project on nutrition in Maharashtra, I have been extremely fortunate to come across a village that is a model of excellence in implementation of Anganwadi (childcare centres), and the midday meal scheme. This particular village, Kasaramboli, is plagued by a lot of problems- environmental, water shortage, power cuts- as no doubt most villages in this country are. Their Anganwadi is a half completed structure with a Shiva temple covering half of an 800 sq ft unit area. Yet their menus are exemplary. More nutritious than our own breakfasts here. Peanut and rava ladoos (laddus) for breakfast, sprouts and chapattis for lunch. Within the government budget.  The children are happy. Parents are happy. The sarpanch is happy.
It’s not such a rosy picture in most other places. The midday meal scheme is constantly plagued by the problem of higher castes refusing to touch food cooked by lower caste women. Menstruating women have been questioned in Tamil Nadu by Brahmins. Hindus refuse foods cooked by Muslims. In all of these places, panchayats and the sarpanch of the villages should be extensively counseled and benefits offered to the villages implementing the schemes properly and peacefully.  The only problem being- the sarpanch usually gains more by funneling off some of the grain for the system for his own house.
We need to focus on bringing high nutrition foods into the reach of our starving children. Multinationals with their money and glamorous processed food? Maybe- but what are the long term health implications for us as a country? Do we want to become another United States, with the obesity, diabetes and heart disease? Is that what we aspire to?
India as traditionally eaten good food- chapattis, dal, rice, veggies, fish, jiggery based sweets, milk. We need to find a way to get good, nutritious foods to the majority of our population. To stop people from dying of hunger on the streets. Feed the pregnant women. Perhaps most importantly- set our midday meal scheme straight so that children can get both education and food.
Never in the history of mankind, has the task of feeding so many rested in the hands of so few. And the ratio can only get worse. To make sure that we as a nation get proper nutrition, along with all its allied benefits- better health, better productivity- is critical. And unless we act now, the task of feeding the 500 million hungry can only get more daunting. Food for thought, anyone?


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