IN THIS INTERVIEW with Sriram Balasubramanian, Bali speaks on issues relating to nutrition in the country, Britannia’s initiatives in combating malnutrition and what needs to be done to help reduce malnutrition. Excerpts:
IE: Congratulations on your appointment in the UN Mission to fight malnutrition. Could you provide a background on this appointment?
Vinita Bali: It of course feels very good to be part of a small group that has been brought together by the UN to devise a road map for the rapid scaling up of nutrition programmes to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Scaling Up Nutrition (or SUN as it is popularly known) was created from the insight, based on facts that several countries were laggards in meeting their MDGs and therefore more urgent, intense and consistent action was required to address all children around the world who are under-nourished. Simply stated, this means that for one out of every four children in the world the chance of illness and death increases, as well as the capacity for cognitive development and therefore, the capacity to earn a living. Remember, malnutrition was the No.1 priority identified recently at the Copenhagen Consensus too.
IE: Your views on the nutrition scenario in India...
VB: Rather than a view, let me state some facts which are well-known and documented:
- One out of three children born in India is under weight.
- 42 per cent of children under the age of five are under-nourished or malnourished as per the latest Hungama Report released in February 2012.
- India looses 2 to 4 per cent of GDP by way of lower productivity as a result of under-nutrition and malnutrition, according to World Bank estimates.
- Eradicating malnutrition has neither received focused attention nor has a single point programme been conceptualised in India, as it happened in countries like Thailand or Brazil where strategies specific to addressing the variety of causes of malnutrition were implemented.
Consequently, malnutrition sits on the cusp of several sectors in India and is central to none. For example: ICDS is the responsibility of the Ministry for Children and Women, the mid-day meal scheme comes under the Ministry of Education, access to primary health is under the Ministry of Health ...
Additionally, India’s malnutrition is peculiar, in that it is deeply rooted in the lower status of women and the discrimination the girl child faces throughout her life. As a result, we have undernourished mothers giving birth to low weight infants and the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition continues.
IE: What are some of the ways you think nutrition in India can be addressed?
VB: Actually, from the Britannia Nutrition Foundation we had submitted a white paper to the Planning Commission on this subject in September 2011, following our annual symposium.
Given the multi dimensional nature of malnutrition in India, the programme for tackling malnutrition has to be comprehensive in nature and must include access to food and nutrition; access to health care; access to hygiene and sanitation and potable drinking water; awareness and education on the right and good practices with respect to the first 1000 days of breast feeding, infant feeding and care giving, including control of infections.
Additionally, given the success stories from other countries and the positive response India has seen with iodized salt, availability of fortified staples at affordable prices through the public distribution system will help increase both access to food and nutrition. Educating people on the role of dietary diversification also cannot be undermined. Most importantly, it is critical to ensure that nutrition related policies are implemented expeditiously. The magnitude of the challenge is such that unless we gear ourselves to creating partnerships amongst government agencies, development agencies, NGOs and the private sector, it is highly unlikely we will create a healthier India. We cannot harbour ambitions of economic growth and development if we rank 143 on the human development index.
IE: The Hungama report suggests that 42 per cent of the children under the age of five are underweight and 58 per cent of all children are underweight. The situation seems pretty stark. As part of the UN mission, how do you plan to address this?
VB: Yes, the situation is stark and ironically the measures that need to be taken to address this are well-known as I have mentioned before. What we need is a strong mind set and a strong political will to implement and track the programmes that we have and create new ones as required. The way forward may be complex to implement but it is certainly not ambiguous.
As far as the UN is concerned, though India has signed up for the MDG goals, India has not opted to be in the SUN countries. Even against MDG goals, our progress is hugely inadequate and it will be several years after 2015 that India will achieve what it had committed to achieving by 2015, unless there is a significantly strong and positive intervention.
IE: In addition, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) that is run by the state seems to be in need for change. As part of the UN mission, how do you plan to work with the Indian government on this?
VB: The ICDS scheme has not delivered what it intended to deliver. It must therefore be overhauled with clear accountability and tracking of input and output metrics. The UN mission is currently not looking at ways to improve the ICDS as that is an initiative that has to come from the Ministry concerned.
IE: How does Britannia as a brand help nutrition in India?
VB: Our initiatives fall into two categories - The first builds on fact that biscuits are an excellent carrier of micro-nutrients. Consequently, we have added micro-nutrients to 50 per cent of the volume we sell through our large brands namely, Tiger, Marie, Milk Bikis, Britannia Bread. Secondly, in 2009 we created the Britannia Nutrition Foundation, which is an independent, autonomous, non-profit entity that is a catalyst and brings together multi sectoral experts from nutrition and food science, medicine, development sector etc for a dialogue with policy makers and the government, to take informed action.
IE: Lastly, how can the common man help in improving the nutrition scenario in India?
In several ways: first, by educating ourselves on the value of food and nutrition and adopting those healthy practices in our everyday lives. Secondly, by using that knowledge to impact the people we interact with. Thirdly, by actively participating in demanding the implementation and accountability of programmes that are already in place.