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Young MPs give fervent call to unite against malnutrition

© UNICEF/ Ranjan Rahi/ 2008
Member of Parliament Kanimozhi holding nine-month-old Anisha who weighs only 4.5 kgs and is undergoing treatment at the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre

Priyanka Khanna

Patna, May 12, 2008: Young parliamentarians, cutting across party lines, and eminent personalities gave an impassioned  call for standing-up and uniting against the scourge of malnutrition after a day-long visit to the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

“It is time to stand-up and unite against malnutrition,” said Shahnawaz Hussain, MP (BJP)  from Bihar. “Historically, we have seen that when Bihar awakens the country awakens. It is time for Bihar to once again show the way for the nation to follow,” said Hussain.

He was speaking on behalf of the Citizen’s Alliance Against Malnutrition that visited Bihar to put the spotlight on the issue of malnutrition and to evaluate some of the State’s strategies in tackling challenges facing child development and survival.

• The populous state of Bihar has the third highest number of under-nourished children in India.

Earlier in the day, the team visited UNICEF-supported Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) in Sarraiya block of Muzaffarpur district, 80 kms from Patna, where they saw children with severe-acute malnutrition (SAM) being treated with medical and nutrition services.

The NRC is one of two units that are operational in Bihar since the devastating floods in September 2007.

The Centre has recorded a high rate of success in rehabilitating severe and acutely malnourished children.

Ninety-nine per cent of SAM children admitted in the NRC belong to marginalized communities.

In the evening the delegation met with the Chief Minister who briefed them on the steps that Bihar was taking to address the problem of child malnutrition, one of the stated priorities of his government.

• The percentage of underweight children (below three) has increased from 54.4 per cent in 1999 to 58.4 per cent in 2005.

In a significant statement, he noted that the Dular strategy was being integrated with ICDS across the state and assured the visiting delegation that more NRCs will be opened for management of SAM children.

The team then moved to Panapur Dharampur village in Vaishali district where they reviewed the UNICEF-promoted Dular strategy that complements the functioning of the village’s Anganwadi Centre.

Under this strategy, the Anganwadi Centre, which is meant to cater to 200 households under the national Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), is supported by a trained woman volunteer called Local Resource Person to reach to 0 to 6-year-old children from impoverished families.

© UNICEF/ Ranjan Rahi/ 2008
Left to Right: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar,UNICEF-Bihar State Representative Bijaya Rajbhandari, MP Mohammed Salim, MPNeeraj Chandarshekar, MP Kanimozhi, MP Madhu Goud and MP Shahnawaz Hussain

An external evaluation of the strategy has shown a difference of over 10 per cent in levels of malnutrition among children who benefited from Dular and those who did not.

The Citizens’ Alliance was formed after global statistics revealed that one-third of all underweight children (below five) worldwide live in India. In other words, every second child (55 million) below age of five in India is undernourished.

Outlining the objective of the visit, Jay Panda, a Member of Parliament from Orissa (BJD), said the aim was to increase awareness about the issue among people’s representatives and media, to evaluate nutrition-related programmes and to be a forum above politics which accelerates efforts to reduce malnutrition in the country.

“The time has come when reduction in malnutrition should be monitored as closely as the GDP or the stock markets,” he said.

The others in the group included Ms  Kanimozhi, MP (DMK), Madhu Goud Yaskhi, MP(Congress Party), Alok Mehta, MP(RJD),  Neeraj Shekhar, MP (Samajwadi Party), Sangeeta Singh Deo, MP (BJP), Gauri Karnik, actor from Mumbai, Samir Dalwai, a leading paediatrician from Mumbai and Neerja Chowdhury, journalist.

Speaking to media, eminent columnist Neerja Chowdhury said in response to a question on what could be different at the policy level, “The ICDS has essentially focused on children between three to six years. But the real damage is done between 0-2 years and it is this focus that needs to shift, to make a real dent in malnutrition rates.”  

• Most importantly, about one million (six-months to five-year-old) children in Bihar, which translates into 8.33 per cent, are suffering from Severe-Acute Malnutrition (SAM) and these children are at 5-20 times higher mortality risk as compared to other children.

The three quick wins that could bring down the rate of child malnutrition, she added, were to ensure mother’s milk within the first hour of birth — and only a quarter of women in India gave their infant colostrums — exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months without water or other milk and making sure that every child took Vitamin A and deworming tablets twice a year. 

To share their experiences with Bihar’s Members of Legislative Assembly, the delegation met with the Bihar Legislative Assembly’s Women and Child Welfare Committee.

Asha Devi, chairperson of the Bihar Legislative Assembly’s Women and Child Welfare Committee, led the meeting during which the Alliance members spoke about their group’s objectives and their initial impressions from the brief field visit.

With recent data indicating that the world will not achieve the Millennium Development Goals without India accelerating its progress, endeavours like the Citizen’s Alliance Against Malnutrition are increasingly becoming the need of the hour. 

The increasing sensitization of the MPs across parties to children’s issues can also be gauged by the fact that last month, at the initiative of  the Citizens Alliance,  131 Members of Parliament across parties staged a candle-light vigil and signed a “Resolve”  expressing their determination  to take up the issue of child malnutrition “on a war footing within and outside Parliament, at the Centre and in States and with civil society”.

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