India’s nutrition goals are stumped by execution challenges

A little more than a year ago, the government unveiled a special scheme — Poshan Abhiyan or National Nutrition Mission – with an aim to make the country malnutrition free. The programme started with an initial outlay of Rs 9,046 crore.

The amount was to be spent on mapping all government schemes that are targeted to fight malnutrition, develop a technology-enabled real-time monitoring system, incentivise state governments and agencies like Anganwadi, doing social audits and setting up nutrition resource centres, among others.

According to an official statement on March 8, 2018, the Poshan Abhiyan was targeted to “reduce stunting by 2 percent, under-nutrition by 2 percent, anaemia by 3 percent and reduce low birth weight by 2% every year”.

By 2022, the Abhiyan is supposed to reduce stunting to 25 percent from 38.4 percent, lower anaemia in children to 19.5 percent from 53.1 percent and anaemia in women and girls to 17.7 percent from 53.1 percent. “All the states and districts will be covered in a phased manner i.e. 315 districts in 2017-18, 235 in 2018-19 and the remaining districts in 2019-20,” it added.

The reality, however, may not be anywhere close to that. A report by Mint on Wednesday identified implementation as a challenge, saying the “intent of the policy is clear”. The report, quoting an advisor of the NITI Aayog, stated that the key to implementation issues is directly linked to unavailability of real-time data on stunted and wasted children in the country. Besides, “political will” and “investment in nutrition” are cited as stumbling blocks.

India conducts the National Family Health Survey every 10 years. And that’s the only data available with government agencies to figure out a way to map malnutrition in India and develop real-time monitoring. The problem also lies at the ground level because some of the allocated funds are still lying unutilised.

The only alternative source of data on this front is the one collected by Anganwadis, but that is done manually. The Poshan scheme does mention a plan of incentivising Anganwadis for using technology to store data. But that has not taken much shape.

This is not the first time the country is trying to fight malnutrition. There are as many as 30 government schemes that have been running for many years. But the outcome has always been disappointing, the reason being poor implementation, funds not being used properly or being siphoned off and lack of political will, essentially at the ground level.

And then, there are scams. The Mid Day Meal scheme, one of the government’s successful programmes, is mired with instances where political leaders and bureaucrats were bribed with crores. Not just that, other schemes like Integrated Child Development Services also suffer from a similar fate.

The Poshan Abhiyan requires quite a few ministries to work together. This not only delays matters, but also increases scope of irregularities. Data collection, analysis and real-time monitoring is an area that can easily be sorted out as the scheme gets implemented. But to give it a start nation-wide, all states and government agencies need to come to a consensus with a positive change in political will irrespective of ideology. That can go a long way in ensuring that India’s nutrition levels improve.