India must learn from Japan on tackling childhood undernourishment and childhood obesity simultaneously
India now faces a peculiar malnutrition problem—as per the latest World Hunger Index, while the prevalence of obesity amongst children under five years of age has increased drastically, the country also has the highest number of school-age children who suffer from extreme thinness. Even as overall undernourishment affects 14.5% of Indians, prevalence of mortality, low weight for height (wasting) and low height for age (stunting) amongst children under five is nearly 5%, 21% and 38.4%, respectively. For perspective, China has an overall undernourishment prevalence of 9.6%, and under-five mortality, wasting and stunting prevalence of 1.1%, 1.8% and 6.3%. The Food and Agriculture Organization, which brings out the index, says that the number of those suffering hunger has grown from 804 million in 2016 to 821 million in 2017—a setback to the progress the world was making towards eradicating hunger, one of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN. While the FAO blames, among other factors, climate change effects severely impacting food security in many nations, war-torn countries like Yemen and Syria, too, are seeing widespread starvation. Thus, fighting global hunger may need a comprehensive approach, one that focuses on developing climate resilience as much as reducing conflict between nations.
In the Indian context, apart from access to adequate food, lack of proper sanitation affects absorption levels amongst Indian kids in economically weaker sections, and aggravates undernourishment. Contrastingly, unwholesome diets and unhealthy dietary preferences amongst the better-off sections has led to the spike in obesity amongst young children. While the focus on sanitation development in communities as well as in schools could help fight malnutrition, mid-day meals, too, could be an important part of the solution. Even as mid-day meal schemes across states have seen some success in tackling childhood undernourishment, they perhaps hold the key to tackling childhood obesity as well. In Japan, under a government programme, school cafeterias give students—elementary to senior secondary—wholesome meals that are free of processed and junk food. Parents who can afford to pay can choose to do so; otherwise, school-children get balanced, nutritious meals without being charged for it. As a result, Japan enjoys a obesity prevalence that is significantly lower than the rest of the world. India could perhaps a take leaf from Japan’s book.