Mothers come in all stripes: time-constrained mothers, overworked mothers, ignorant mothers, anaemic mothers, underweight mothers, far-too-young mothers. And they always come under the scanner of policymakers, trying to set right the wrongs of historical hunger and malnutrition that haunt India. It set off a buzz recently, when Smriti Irani, Union minister for women and child development, chided the team driving POSHAN Abhiyaan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream mission to eradicate malnutrition: “Why do you always target women?” The word was out on the street. And, with it, the hope that something might just come right one day. But has she really? Ask her and she bursts into peals of laughter: “That does sound like me.” In an exclusive interview with Damayanti Datta on August 12, she talks about the POSHAN Abhiyaan—and why she thinks it is a game-changer for India.
India has had so many policies to tackle malnutrition and for so long, but nothing has really worked. Will POSHAN Abhiyaan work?
Well, I don’t think India has ever had such a systemic and collective administrative approach to tackle malnutrition. POSHAN Abhiyaan is the first in that aspect. For the first time, there is an intra-ministry convergence of efforts, with the NITI Aayog and with every state government. It is for the first time that logistical and anthropological analysis has been done. For the first time, there are targets and achievable goals on an annual basis. For the first time, there is a meeting of minds, a convergence of efforts, and layers of governance. For the first time, there is a method in monitoring which aspects of the programme are going well and which are sluggish. The executive body which meets under the leadership of the secretary, women and child development, studies the efforts that need more effort, every quarter, every month, so that we don’t lose time. This is an everyday effort taken by both the Centre and the states.
POSHAN Abhiyaan is Prime Minister Modi’s flagship programme. Does that make it different?
Absolutely. The administrative resolve is visible. You don’t have intradepartmental friction on issues of malnutrition. Also, you have cooperative federalism to achieve the goals of nutrition. Never has a state shied away from the effort or denied that much needs to be done, as often happens when challenges in terms of data come up. That is not happening here. That, in fact, is one of the biggest hallmarks of POSHAN Abhiyaan.
India’s GDP has gone up, but calorie consumption has been declining over the decades. Clearly, governments do not really care about malnutrition. How did it become such a focus area for with the Modi government?
When you are talking of a new India, can you afford to have malnourished children? That is the very basis of a new India. The Prime Minister does not work from the perspective of vote banks. Remember that the Prime Minister turned menstruation into a national discourse? That was not a vote issue. He does something, because, he believes, everybody ought to do that. He has always worked on making a stronger and healthier India, where not only men and women but children also matter. The PM’s love for children has been visible from his first year in office. He likes to interact with students. Think of the idea of Pariksha Pe Charcha. Which PM in our history has bothered to look at exam stress for children?
Nutrition is no longer seen as a sectoral issue. It’s a social issue, economic issue, social justice issue and a political issue. Would you agree?
I don’t think malnutrition has ever been a political issue in our country. It is not a political issue, because children are not vote banks. It is an issue of social responsibility, for sure. Justice, yes. That is why we have designed special interventions among the tribal people, among the divyang. Only when you think of malnutrition as a social issue, can you get people to come together and resolve to have healthy children and mothers despite political differences.
The idea of jan andolan gives it the added edge that it is not a government programme. Across ministries and states, we share good experiences, behaviours and best practices. Say, the nutrition-gardens that so many citizens have started growing. Or the Fist Of Grain campaign, where you take out a muththi or fistful of grain before preparing every meal to fund someone who needs it. This is another example of people coming together and learning together despite political differences. It’s the people’s resolve.
When recently the Lok Sabha Speaker kindly gave me some time to speak, I talked about Tithi Bhoj that the Prime Minister had introduced in Gujarat when he was chief minister there. Tithi Bhoj is a concept that encourages families as well as religious or charitable institutions to donate nutritious food to the community on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or festivals. And I do believe, we can all take up such ideas irrespective of political differences. We do have one state which has not participated, but we don’t want to shame them but reach out.
The road ahead for POSHAN Abhiyaan.
My plea within the government is that we look at adolescent health, not just from a girl’s perspective but also a boy’s. When you make nutrition as much a man’s right as a woman’s only then does it become a holistic approach towards a solution. One of the greatest reasons for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to have been so successful was that men were equal participants. And that the Prime Minister led from the front. Even in POSHAN Abhiyaan the PM is leading from the front. Now it is time for the men of the country to say it is as much in their interest to have nourished women and children at home.