By Raghwesh Ranjan & Ishika Chaudhary
Seventy-five years into independence and building a well-nourished citizenry remains one of the biggest challenges faced by the country. Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5) shows severe wasting, or low weight for height, in 7.7% of children in India, and over 35.5% of children show stunted growth. While significant gains have been made by the country in reducing maternal and infant mortality rates over the years, high rates of anaemia and malnourishment among women of reproductive age continue to cost many infants a healthy childhood.
Studies have shown that despite national and local efforts through public food distribution (PDS) systems, social customs, and prevalent myths around nutrition among local communities exacerbate India’s worries on the health front. Public participation, or ‘jan bhagidari’ through digital communication, has, thus, become a crucial part of the social and behaviour change (SBC) strategy to fight malnutrition in a diverse India.
As India celebrates its fifth ‘Rashtriya Poshan Maah,’ or National Nutrition Month, this September, the coming together of public and private partners along with local stakeholders on participative and innovative digital campaigns offers new-age solutions to busting myths, counselling families, and driving home the message of a healthy and energetic India.
Nudging people toward nutrition
Since the pandemic is said to have erased decades of progress on curbing malnutrition in India, the post-pandemic rise of round-the-clock digital campaigning has become critical for the future. Offering faster and larger outreach at lower costs vis-a-vis the traditional modes of campaigning, the digital medium, using social media and other platforms to communicate with a large target audience, seems to be bringing relief to behavioural challenges on the ground.
Public campaigns, be it GoI’s national campaigns under the ‘Poshan Abhiyan,’ or the DASTAK programme in Madhya Pradesh, have all focused on fast adopting the latest technology to grapple with issues like malnutrition among women and children. These programmes empower frontline workers like the ANMs (Auxiliary Nurse Midwives) and ASHAs with mobile devices to reach out to local communities with required resources, in the form of food, nutrition kits or educational material. Active messaging and regular counselling drives are phenomenally successful in nudging public behaviour towards the right habits and away from misconceptions.
Using the clarion calls of ‘jan andolan’ (people’s movement), ‘Champion ki Maa’ (mother of a champion), and ‘Aao Chale Anganwadi’ (Come, let us visit the Anganwadi) or even #Local4Poshan, many of these programmes utilise the means of mass communication, and increasingly social media, to inform millions of people on improving nutrition and diet.
By sharing informative messages with local communities on nutritious diets for pregnant and lactating mothers, busting existing myths, scheduling digital counselling sessions, and installing POSHAN trackers for effective monitoring, among other means, large-scale public programmes are digitally engaging the community to drive the message home.
Private endeavours in influencing the public
Across the world, public health campaigns receive great private support to employ the latest technology for public communication. Support of the private sector has also become instrumental in India to maximise outreach across urban, rural, and remote areas. Be it using social media influencers and celebrities to relay messages on nutrition or through interactive and shareable content, private companies, including Amway and Nestle have run successful campaigns centred on good nutrition in the past.
A recent UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) virtual talk with women and children in Assam, which was live streamed across all states in North-East India, provided a platform for Anganwadi workers and beneficiaries to share experiences. By exhorting local youth to help raise awareness in curbing misconceptions around nutrition, the session proved the importance of direct communication using virtual means.
Efforts under ‘Rajpusht’ programme, supporting the Government of Rajasthan, are notable on the front of digital communication. Conceptualising the locally popular character ‘Bahubali’ as the ambassador of nutrition in 5 districts, RajPusht programme has launched a digital campaign engaging over 3 million people in fighting maternal and child malnutrition.
Nudging husbands to take care of their wives during pregnancy, the campaign has utilised the high internet percolation in the state to communicate to the people through digital posters, GIFs, and web series. The content under this campaign challenges often-regressive social norms, myths, and beliefs prevalent in this region and has been able to encourage the local public towards healthier dietary practices.
Digital campaigning paves the way ahead
The use of digital media can help facilitate the effectiveness and reach of national and local government programmes on malnutrition, the two most important metrics defining the success of any public policy. Increased use of big data can also leverage the current schemes by introducing accuracy, identification, and monitoring for the long term.
With efforts being put to bridge the existing digital divide, greater infiltration of digital technologies to the grassroots will not only help improve public connection but also raise awareness and enhance SBC outputs in nutrition. Infrastructural and public support for local digital campaigns will also improve their success metrics and increase greater acceptance of messaging among local communities.
Most importantly, faith in the potential of digital and social media technology will help reinvigorate current mass-nutrition campaigns, realising the transformation from ‘jan andolan’ to ‘jan bhagidari,’ and making every home a partner in building a healthy and energetic India.
(The authors, Raghwesh Ranjan is Director, Social & Economic Empowerment, IPE Global (international development consultancy firm) & Ishika Chaudhary is Associate, Social & Economic Empowerment. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)