Nutrition and health are fundamental drivers of growth, and a healthy populace is necessary for India to have a healthy economy. Keeping this in mind all sections of society, especially the corporate sector, should be brought on board in India’s fight against malnutrition, says Dr Rajan Sankar, Senior Advisor, Nutrition, Tata Trusts.
Tata Trusts, India's oldest philanthropy, has joined hands with the government to take forward the Poshan Abhiyaan or National Nutrition Mission in a big way.
Sankar, in an interview with Outlook, said in order to combat malnutrition India needs mass mobilization, where the community takes the ownership of the mission and drives the agenda.
“Community participation plays an important role. While the government has to be in the driver’s seat, a lot of nutrition occurs at home, at the individual, family and community level. People will have to take on the responsibility to improve health and nutrition. There are Anganwadi centres, but they can play a role only if people use them, and only by increasing people’s participation at the centres will we put pressure on the service delivery,” he said.
“Malnutrition is about what you eat and how healthy it is. There is also the question of food security at the national level, the household level and intra-household sharing, intra-household dynamics, which also involves women literacy, empowerment of women. Environment, water and sanitation, hygiene… It is very complex and inter-related. In India, for the phenomenal progress the country has made, malnutrition remains a big challenge.”
In view of this, Sankar said, that India needs multiple sectors to come together and play a role. “And corporates and businesses are one of the important pillars of any economy, and they too should play the role they can.”
Referring to the role the food and beverages sector can play in the fight against malnutrition, he said with rapid urbanisation more women are getting into the workforce, and they are dependent on the market for daily food needs. ”So, the business in food and beverages have a big role to play as well as a big responsibility for the right nutrition and health of the people.”
Sankar said people need to have a “health-seeking behavior”. “A lot of nutrition has to happen at home -- the decision of a mother to breast feed the child, get it immunised, and take it to an Anganwadi centre when it has a health issue — all this requires a health-seeking behavior that would improve health and nutrition of a child and society as a whole. Community ownership and participation, and taking responsibility of health and nutrition would play a very important part in this fight against malnutrition,” he said.
Talking about Tata Trusts’ work in tackling malnutrition, he said they have some “successful examples” across the country. “Tata Trusts' project ‘Making It Happen’ is in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Palghar in Maharashtra. We work with the community, create that awareness and get the panchayati raj institutions and women self-help groups and adolescent girls, to take the leadership, and use the community health facilities and Anganwadi centres --- and things improved remarkably.”
Sankar said there are several examples of such successful models, “But the problem is many of them are working either very slowly or at very small scale. But the real issue is to take the models to scale, and to speed, and for this we need mass mobilization, and mass mobilization where the community takes the ownership and drives the agenda.”
On CSR, he said with India’s growth story there are sections of the populace which are very rich, and “many are setting up their own philanthropic foundations. We also have a legal mandate for the corporates to donate or implement the CSR where they put aside a certain portion of their profits for CSR. So, we have a lot of resources coming, and quite a bit of it is focused on education and curative medicine. But somehow nutrition has not attracted these donors. It is important for the nutrition community to project to philanthropic and CSR that nutrition and health are foundational blocs for human development”.
Sankar said the link between optimum nutrition and getting nutrition at the right age is very important. “What we call the critical window of opportunity, the first 1,000 days, from conception to the first two years of a child, is when most of the brain development occurs, and that determines how well the child is going to be and how much of the true genetic potential the child can reach. So, investing in nutrition in early life or first 1,000 days is one of the foundational investments for a bright future of the country. So, philanthropy and CSR funding should focus on this if they want their later investment in education to fructify,” he added.
“I think that this is a big role, and the nutrition community has to project this very well and draw in more resources for nutrition,” he said.
Asked if India can achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2 – of ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, Sankar said: “Definitely yes, we can achieve SDG 2. And the way the country is moving, I am very confident that we will be able to eliminate hunger, and we have achieved a considerable food security at the household level, and we should be able to substantially reduce the level of malnutrition.”
He also discussed the different aspects of malnutrition, including under-nutrition, when we eat much less than needed, and the other is eating more than required, or over-nutrition and obesity, “and what straddles both is micro nutrient deficiency.”