Malnutrition, a major health crisis in the Melghat region of Maharashtra

Fourteen-month-old Manishi and her three-year-old sister Vandana live in the tribal belt of Melghat, Maharashtra, and according to Indian government guidelines, both children are malnourished.

Manishi weighs only 6kg, against a prescribed weight of 7kg, and is considered to be suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Vandana officially falls into the category of moderate acute malnutrition. Their mother Suganti says access to basic food is a struggle. “I give them rice twice a day, they get food from the Aganwadi,” she said.

Manishi and Vandana are just two of thousands of malnourished children in Maharashtra.

The state has the highest incidence of malnutrition among Indian states and told the Bombay High Court that 6,582 children died of malnutrition between 2019 and April 2022. In its affidavit, filed in April 2022, the government of the The state admitted that the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition increased by more than 26,000 during these 39 months, while more than one million children were added to the category of moderate acute malnutrition.

The problem is not unique to Maharashtra. According to the National Family Health Survey 2019-2021, there has been no significant improvement in health and nutritional status in India since 2015-2016; 7.7% of its children suffer from severe wasting, 19.3% from wasting and 35.5% from stunting; 3.4% are overweight and 67.1% are anemic. All parameters combined, India’s situation has deteriorated.

The pandemic was a major factor in this fall in standards and placed India 101st out of 116 countries in the 2021 Global Hunger Index, down from 94th in 2020. Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal , Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even war-torn Iraq rank higher.

Even central government programs like Anganwadi, which serve nutritious meals to children up to age 6, as well as pregnant and lactating women, have not helped. During the pandemic, many Anganwadis closed and in a few areas beneficiaries received groceries instead of hot cooked meals. But even these were sporadic. Now the program is back online, but the damage done to children is not reversible overnight.

Geeta, an employee of Anganwadi, says, “We give eggs and other nutritious food to the children, keep their records up to date and take their weight every month.

Experts say that one of the main reasons for poor nutrition is lack of funds. The government allocation for child health programs has increased slightly from Rs 20,105 crore in the 2021 budget to Rs 20,263 crore in the 2022 budget. This, of course, covers several schemes, and Anganwadi services do not are just one of them.

Even the budget allocation for the midday meal program which targets school children has increased from Rs 11,500 crore in 2021 to Rs 10,230 crore in 2022.

The Bombay High Court is hearing several PILs regarding deaths from malnutrition in Maharashtra. The court has overthrown the state government and the state apparatus on several occasions. Recently, the court warned the state government that no more than one child is expected to die of malnutrition in Maharashtra. Later, the state government informed the court that the situation was now under control, but the claim is far from reality.

Activist Bandu Sampatrao Sane says: “More than 50 children died in Melghat between April and June this year. The lack of coordinated efforts makes the situation more difficult. There should be regular visits from pediatricians and gynecologists.

Melghat is just the tip of the iceberg. Even urban areas like Govandi and Mankhurd in Mumbai have reported high numbers of malnourished children. Many of them are associated with malnutrition in pregnant women, which is transmitted to the infant. In response, the Maharashtra government has formulated guidelines to identify pregnant women as soon as a pregnancy is detected and register them for nutritional food supplements. But experts warn that reversing the effects of pandemic-related disruption on these crucial programs will be a long and painful process.


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