Reducing Child Malnutrition – Action Backed By Data

After many stops and starts, the National Nutrition Mission (NNM) is being launched by the Prime Minister on 8 March (International Women’s Day) at Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. I have heard some rumblings about the NNM’s excessive focus on data monitoring and the lack of a specific programmatic focus. This is but to be expected from the Indian intelligentsia, which always looks upwards for policy and programme inspiration. In the last fifteen years, we have been snowed under with programmes designed to improve access to healthcare, employment and food. Most of these programmes have not fitted in with the lumbering public service delivery mechanisms that are a characteristic of most Indian state governments. Additionally, their implementation has been bedeviled by inadequate budgetary provisions. It is time that we move from policy obsession to action focus, as admirably enunciated by my friend Sanjeev Ahluwalia in his recent article (Junk Policy for Action). Hence, my two bits on what needs to be done in the sphere of reducing child malnutrition.

For a start, with the Fourteenth Finance Commission mandating an increased devolution of central financial resources to the states from 32% to 42%, the time has come for state governments to stop crying that they are being deprived of “mother’s milk” by the centre. Along with such budgetary provisions as accrue to them from the centre, state governments need to responsibly start making significant budget provisions for the nutrition, health and education sectors, which will contribute most to reducing the incidence of child malnutrition and mortality. States also need to take a hard look at their policies for supplementary nutrition provision to mothers and children under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. This area that has seen phenomenal corruption enriching contractors, politicians and bureaucrats and has drawn the ire of even the Supreme Court but has not altered politico-bureaucratic behaviour in the least, except the search for more ingenious methods to pull wool over the eyes of the Court. Schemes like the Karnataka Mathru Poorna programme, which provides a hot midday meal to pregnant and nursing mothers, need to be replicated, with close social monitoring to minimise leakages. Supplementary nutrition to children in anganwadis (and, where they are under-3, at home) needs to rely on local food preparation by mothers’ and self-help groups.

At the same time, the central government can help matters by acting as a funnel for data dissemination and technical advice. A huge volume of data relating to maternal and child health and nutrition process and outcome indicators flows into the central government data servers every month. The ICDS monthly progress report is supposed to be sent online every month by all state governments to the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Government of India (MWCD). Even if it is sent (itself a matter for investigation), no one looks at it, let alone sends analysed data back to the state government for remedial action. The Mother and Child Tracking System (MCTS) was introduced by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India (MOHFW) with much fanfare in 2011 to track the health and nutrition status of mothers and children from conception through delivery to the time the child reaches the age of 5 years. Not a byte of this voluminous data collected over the past seven years has been made available to, or has been used by, state government health and nutrition machineries to improve their capabilities to better serve mothers and children. If the NITI Aayog, MWCD and MOHFW work together to make all this extremely useful field-level data available to state government formations right down to the anganwadi and health sub-centre levels, they will have contributed more to reducing child malnutrition and mortality than all the central government efforts over the past forty years.

But having all the data is not enough; using it judiciously is even more crucial to successful outcomes. Since the Prime Minister is launching the NNM in Rajasthan, an example from that state will highlight what I mean. May I refer you to a report in the Hindustan Times of 27 February 2018 (Programme to address all malnutrition causes). This piece details the programme to tackle severe wasting or severe acute malnutrition (SAM) through community involvement, known in nutrition circles as Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM). The first phase of the CMAM initiative was undertaken in 2015-16 in 41 blocks in 13 districts of Rajasthan. That over 2.25 lakh under-5 children were screened and nearly 10,000 children were enrolled in the programme, of whom over 90% are reported to have recovered from SAM is good news. At the same time, this is still touching only the tip of the iceberg. These 13 districts are home to over 24.50 lakh under-5 children, of whom, if one goes by the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) figures, over 2.50 lakh children fall in the SAM category. Even if one takes just a cross-section of blocks in these 13 districts, the CMAM screening of 2015-16 ought to have uncovered a far greater number of SAM children than 10,000. Screening of entire child populations in selected areas was probably the reason for the lower number of SAM children identified, since the ICDS-health machinery would have been able to reach only a limited number of children with the resources available. Since the ICDS is supposed to record weights of all under-5 children monthly, it would have been a far more effective strategy to identify severely underweight (SUW) children (those with weights less than three standard deviations below normal) and then record the heights of these SUW children to arrive at an accurate assessment of the number of severely wasted children.

The news report states that the Mission Director of the National Health Mission, Rajasthan claims success for the CMAM exercise. Apart from the low numbers of SAM children reached, there is no supporting evidence to show the extent of non-relapse into SAM of the over 9000 children who are supposed to have moved out of SAM. I would be rather sceptical of a CMAM programme which does not give specific data on the same children one year after their release from the facility where they underwent treatment. The Rajasthan government now plans to expand the programme of Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition (IMAM) to 50 blocks in 20 districts (which include the original 13 districts) of the state. IMAM is a programme developed in geographical contexts where civil strife and ethnic unrest lead to worsening of children’s nutrition status. It has to be applied cautiously in settings where child malnutrition is a chronic condition rather than an emergency situation. Rather than getting caught up in acronyms, it is desirable to focus on the fundamentals. The 20 chosen districts have an under-5 child population of over 45 lakhs, with a reasonable estimate (based on NFHS-4 data) of about 5 lakh SAM children. To avoid spreading resources (financial and manpower) too thin and to get the maximum mileage for the money spent, it would be advisable to track the weight of every child in every anganwadi in these districts and to identify the anganwadis with the maximum burden of SAM children. The heights of children falling in the SUW category could be recorded by a health functionary, who would also assess any prevalence of disease in the child requiring treatment. These SAM children could then be treated under the prescribed SAM protocols, with the highest-incidence anganwadis being taken up first, and other lesser-incidence anganwadis being taken up subsequently, depending on the financial and organisational capacity to treat the children. The condition of these children should be followed up for a year subsequently by the three As, the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and the Anganwadi Worker (AWW).

I am not discounting the importance of an integrated approach to treating child malnutrition, covering behavioural changes in families and communities and the need to focus on policy interventions in nutrition-sensitive sectors like drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and livelihoods. What I am worried about is that in the enthusiasm to do too many things, the central issue of tackling the immediate problem of SAM will be lost sight of. This is the reason why the Rajmata Jijau Mother-Child Health and Nutrition Mission of Maharashtra, the first of its kind in the country, focused on specific action areas in a sequential order, with fairly gratifying outcomes. Unless we adopt the same talisman that Gandhiji adopted, substituting the “most malnourished child” for the “poorest and weakest man”, we are unlikely to remove what has been, and continues to be, a blot on India’s development story.