Civil society organisations, government representatives, scientists and scholars discussed approaches for a hunger-free India at a programme organised by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission and UNICEF, Chennai. A look at what transpired
Taking forward the momentum of Nutrition Week, an annual event encouraged by the Government of India to promote awareness of the importance of nutrition, the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) recently organised a programme in collaboration with the State Planning Commission, Tamil Nadu, and UNICEF, Chennai, to bring together civil society organisations, government representatives, scientists and scholars to discuss ‘approaches for a hunger-free India. Participants shared information on the status of food and nutrition security in India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular, and facilitated sharing of experiences and suggestions from representatives of organisations working for food and nutrition security in Tamil Nadu. MSSRF founder-chairman Prof MS Swaminathan chaired the programme and facilitated discussions.
The event was aimed at identifying ways to move ahead with the agenda of a hunger-free India and to frame practical solutions that can be implemented by policy-makers and stakeholders. Executive director, MSSRF, V. Selvam, in his introductory remarks, spoke of the need for a common forum to discuss and share various strategies related to nutrition across Tamil Nadu.
R. Rukmani, director, Food Security, MSSRF, outlined various measures taken to ensure food security and nutrition in India. The steps to eradicate hunger were initially detailed in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which have now continued into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Nutrition was the second goal of the SDGs, she noted. She spoke about the World Health Assembly’s targets for 2025 on various health indicators including stunting, wasting and anaemia in children. Rukmani also spoke of how MSSRF adopted the Food and Agriculture Organisaton’s multi-dimensional definition of food security, looking at availability, access and absorption of food, while taking into account the Lifecycle Approach to nutrition.
R.V. Bhavani, project mana-ger, LANSA-MSSRF, gave an overview of the work undertaken during the project which began in 2013. A baseline survey was conducted in Koraput, Odisha and Wardha, Maharashtra, to determine gaps in linkages between agriculture and nutrition. LANSA is implementing the ‘farming system for nutrition’ approach. She described how farmers had reaped benefits just by making small changes to methods of cultivation, and stressed the need to focus on nutritious crops such as millets and pulses as well as look at scaling up these initiatives. The importance of community empowerment in facilitating nutrition outcomes was underscored by Rama Narayanan, independent con-sultant on nutrition, who facilitated MSSRF’s ‘community hunger fighters’ initiative in Koraput District, Odisha.
Farhat Saiyed, nutrition specialist, UNICEF, shared data related to nutrition in Tamil Nadu, and referred to specific interventions related to malnutrition, in the context of the ‘lifecycle approach’, especially with regard to children’s nutrition. She highlighted how many project pilots showed good results, but when scaled up, became unsuccessful, perhaps because pilots were conducted in a controlled environment. She recommended hand-holding for projects even after they were scaled up, until desired results were seen. Based on WHO standards, focus on diet diversity, food frequency (quality and quantity of the food given) and training for locally appropriate food consumption was needed, she stressed. Sayied also emphasised the need for documentation of results and evaluation of work done.
Job Zachariah, chief, UNICEF Office of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, was of the view that nutrition needed to be among the government’s top priorities. He spoke about two different approaches – nutrition-specific intervention and nutrition-sensitive interventions. Accord-ing to Lancet, more importance needed to be given to the latter which was the more holistic way to tackle malnutrition, he said. He also stressed the importance of intervening in the first 1000 days of a child’s life.
K.R. Jahan Mohan from the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission spoke about how people had moved away from traditional, nutritious crops such as millets to cash crops due to changing lifestyles. The Tamil Nadu Government’s document on Malnutrition-Free Tamil Nadu aimed to chart the path to a long-term multi-sectoral strategy to eliminate malnutrition, he said. A four-point programme aimed at enhanced nutrition levels, with the focus on millets, pulses, horticulture and equitable distribution of food would help, he suggested.
Prof M.S. Swaminathan called for a 4M approach for a malnutrition-free India – methods to eradicate mal-nutrition, materials needed to achieving this, measurement to assess the nutrition levels and monitoring of interventions undertaken. Prof Swaminathan stressed the importance of fortifying food. He outlined different types of hunger and touched on aspects of food safety. The Food Security Act endowed citizens with the Right to Food, he noted.
What they said
Dr Thirunarayanan of Siddha Medicine and Natural Foods spoke of the need to move back to traditional options for tackling malnutrition.
Jagannath of Nallakeerai explained his success in growing 40 varieties of greens using organic farming techniques.
Hemamalini, lecturer at Sri Ramachandra Medical College, spoke about the need to create awareness about nutrition through mass media, and at the school level. She felt creating more and better paid job opportunities for nutrition students would help mainstream the subject.
Ponnammal, SHG member from Kannivadi, said moving away from traditional practices was hitting health. As an example, cooking greens (spinach) in earthen pots not only allowed all the nutritional value to be retained, but also helped easy digestion, she said, and added that the nutritional implications of such traditional practices should be documented and brought back into vogue.
Thachinamurthy, principal scientist, MSSRF, said there was a mistaken belief that rice was only carbohydrates and should be avoided. In fact, rice was full of vitamins and minerals but it all depended on the extent to which it had been processed, he pointed out. Even millets, once they were polished, lost all their nutrients, he noted.
Sujatha, consultant, called for creating a band of ‘community hunger fighters’ at the village level, who could take the message of the importance of breastfeeding to the people.
The way forward
1. Creation of a knowledge-sharing network on nutrition in Tamil Nadu, with the State Planning Commission, UNICEF and MSSRF as lead agencies.
2. Conducting consultative meetings among stakeholders, focusing on three important aspects:
a. Formalisation of the knowledge-sharing network (facilitated by Planning Commission)
b. Policy inputs for Tamil Nadu towards achieving a malnutrition-free state (facilitated by UNICEF)
c. Awareness on nutrition along with review of existing resources and way ahead (facilitated by MSSRF)
3. Reviewing the plan document for Malnutrition-Free Tamil Nadu in the light of recent developments in eradicating malnutrition, and updating it as necessary, Prof Swaminathan to lead the process.
4. Facilitating field-level interventions (by MSSRF in partnership with other organisations for one block in Tamil Nadu), to research and demonstrate suggestions for a malnutrition-free State.