Did you know that one-third of all stunted children and half of all wasted children in the world are Indians?
Did you know that in 2019 India slipped to 16th place from the bottom in the Global Hunger Index? Our country ranked 102nd among 117 countries (excluding those where hunger is not a problem) even behind its much smaller neighbours, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
And yet, Union Budget 2020 presented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP government seems to have ignored two of the most important programmes for addressing hunger and malnutrition among children—the POSHAN Abhiyaan (or the National Nutrition Mission) and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). Both these important schemes directly relate to nutrition, but the government has failed to make any palpable increases in their financial allocation for the next financial year.
The POSHAN Abhiyaan was formally launched on 8 March 2018 with a three-year budget of Rs.9,046.17 crore beginning from 2017-18 (50% to be funded by government budgetary support and 50% from a World Bank loan through the International Bank for Reconstruction & Development or IBRD).
The programme aims to reduce stunting, under-nutrition, anaemia and low birth weight among children—while also focussing on adolescent girls, pregnant women and lactating mothers under the umbrella ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) scheme.
The government has claimed that the POSHAN programme would benefit more than 10 crore people.
But looking at the budget allocations for the programme, it is hard to believe that the government is serious about its stated aim to reduce hunger and improve nutrition.
For 2020-21, the Budget Estimate (BE) of expenditure on POSHAN is Rs 3,700 crore—a marginal increase of Rs 300 crore from last year’s Rs 3,400 crore (both as allocated under BE and as spent under the Revised Budget or RE).
The actual expenditure in 2018-19 (as shown in the budget documents) was a mere Rs 2,622.31 crore.
As for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, which is critical for the nutrition of school-going children aged 6 to 14, the budget allocation saw no increase. At Rs 11,000 crore, the allocation is the same as last year’s BE. But then the government ended up spending even less on MDMS in 2019-20 as shown by the Revised Estimate, which was Rs 9,912.21 crore.
What is more, as the figures for 2018-19 show, the government’s total actual expenditure on feeding school-going children was even lesser, at Rs 9,514.34 crore.
The budget allocation has decreased significantly from FY 2013-14, the year before the BJP came to power, when the scheme got Rs 13, 215 crore.
Stunting is defined (in children aged under 5) as low height for age, which implies impaired growth. Wasting is a condition of low weight-for-height and indicates severe weight loss. Both indicate acute malnutrition.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4 for 2015-16, 38.4% of children are stunted, 35.7% are underweight and 21% are wasted. Besides, 58.4% of children under 5 are anaemic.
With the allocation unchanged over the previous year, there is hardly any chance that India can take advantage of its so-called demographic dividend.