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Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Malnutrition vs Religion




It will surprise few that India’s children are amongst the most likely to suffer malnourishment however the reasons behind this are certainly not as simple as one would expect (i.e. lack of food).

Fundamentally malnutrition is defined as not enough or too much of a single food group. This in turn leads to complications in utilising consumed sustenance and therefore hampering the body’s ability to fight off and recover from infection. The problem faced by Indian society is primarily related to a lack of protein in the diet of young children which is then exacerbated by the sanitary and religious conditions that they find themselves living in.

While there other forms of serious child malnutrition (such as iodine, vitamin A, or iron, deficiencies) lack of protein is by far the most lethal and, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), plays a major role 50% of all deaths under 5 years of age. The situation in India is particularly severe where 30% of the entire world’s under-nourished population can be found. In a country of the size, both geographically and economically, of India it is clearly not just a lack of food that is accountable.

One unique factor behind India’s child malnourishment is the influence that is held by India’s various religious sects and the dietary recommendations that are advocated. Contrary to popular belief India is by no means a vegetarian society, however the rise of fundamentally religious political parties who espouse the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle has restricted what food may be served at school’s midday meals (MDM). Most controversial is restriction on the serving of eggs which can provide a significant protein boost (one egg contains half of the recommended daily intake) and are easily digestible to those suffering with malnutrition.

Originally brought into practice in the 1990s India’s MDM programme has become a vital source of nourishment for the poorest children in society. However, respecting regional religions place strict vegetarian restrictions on the lunchtime menus. A current example is the region of Karnataka where 9 out of 10 children are suffering with malnutrition but as it is administered by the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party are forbidden from the MDM on religious grounds. Perhaps the fact that milk is served in schools nationwide leads to a logical conclusion drawn by the nation’s Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi) who advised “he who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile egg”.

Crudely nicknamed “the open defecation capital of the world” the state of India’s public sanitation is the other unique contributing factor to this problem.Particularly affected are rural areas where, according to the WHO, it was estimated that last year 61% of Indians defecated in the open. A staggering statistic, far higher than any other (reportable) country, that results in the deaths of 1000 children each day to diarrhoea related diseases and has a wide reaching impact on their ability to retain nutrition and maintain a healthy, growing body.


To combat this precise issue Prime Minister Nehendra Modi embarked on the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission in October 2014 to be concluded by October 2019 to mark Gandhi’s 150th birthday. Construction has been undertaken at a furious pace and there are signs that the tide is turning; between Oct ’14 and Jan ‘16 the number of rural families with access to a working toilet went from 42% to 49%, however, physical construction is only half the battle. The other side to tackle is convincing the (mostly) rural population of the need to cease open defecation. In a country proudly steeped in tradition this is no small challenge but one that must be overcome if India is to take its rightful place at table with the world’s other super-powers.

-William Lewis 
-Picture Credit Heeals 

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