Tuesday, February 19, 2008

'India has largest number of undernourished people'


Take Medha Patkar: 20 years of peaceful resistance. No result. Take Sharmila Irom: 7 years of heroic fasting. No result. Take Binayak Sen…

New Delhi: India is home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world, and the country director of the United Nations World Food Programme (UNFP) says that malnutrition in tribal areas is a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, ignorance and unemployment that requires a multi-pronged solution.

Malnutrition among children below the age of three is pegged at nearly 44 per cent against the sub-Saharan average of 25 per cent in Africa, said Gian Peitro Bordignon, country director and India representative for the World Food Programme (WFP).

"India has the largest number of undernourished people in the world and one-third of the world's underweight children. There are more than 220 million people who are hungry and food-insecure in the country," Bordignon told IANS in an interview.

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The World Food Programme, which has been working in India to end hunger since 1963, has assisted over 1.5 million women and children in the country in 2007.

"In Chhattisgarh, one of the most backward tribal states in the country, nearly 50 per cent of people in villages suffer from malnutrition. The food situation is pre-occupying," Bordignon said.

He is just back from a tour of Chhattisgarh, where the WFP is implementing a micro-level village development programme, the Grameen Pushti Yojana, with the National Mineral Development Corporation and grassroots non-profit groups in Dantewada in Bastar, a hotbed of Maoist violence and widespread poverty.

The problem of hunger in Chhattisgarh's tribal areas is complex, Bordignon said.

According to him, it is a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, marked by total absence of income generating activity, ignorance and security-related problems that have led to lax supervision of food delivery programmes. This means reduced accessibility of the people to basic food items.

Bordignon feels the problem calls for a multi-pronged solution. "We call it the life-cycle approach. It is a package of solutions that ensures better value in terms of food commodities, accessibility to abundant food and self-reliance on one hand and better delivery services on the other.

"At the same time, we educate tribals - men, women and children - about better hygiene, health, food habits and agriculture to ensure long-term development," the WFP official said.

Food habits in the remote villages of Chhattisgarh are strange, Bordignon observed.

"The tribals in Dantewada don't drink milk because they believe cow milk is meant solely for calves, not humans. As a result, they don't milk their cattle. The tribals have limited access to fresh vegetables and fruits, and their intake of minerals and vitamins is inadequate," he said.

The UN food arm, which plans to improve the overall nutrition and quality of food of the tribals in the area, will oversee food procurement and implementation of the project.

The Grameen Pushti Yojana was unveiled by central minister Ram Vilas Paswan Jan 18 and will take off March end. The plan looks into "all aspects of lifestyle uplift, with fortified food for children as the core development area", Bordignon explained.

Under the programme, WFP will distribute among children its fortified food, Indiamix, a blend of soya, vitamins and minerals, rich in micro-nutrients.

"It is already part of the government's Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS)," Bordignon said.

Over 50,000 children and lactating mothers will benefit from the programme, which will cover health, sanitation, income generation, horticulture and setting up of grain banks in nearly 35 Chhattisgarh villages, the UN food official said.

Bordignon has over 20 years of experience to his credit. In Nepal, he implemented a pilot de-worming project within the ambit of the WFP primary school feeding programme, which was later developed into a worldwide WFP initiative.

"We have increased the pace of work in India lately," he said.

The WFP has roped in sitar exponent Anoushka Shankar, daughter of maestro Ravi Shankar, as its latest celebrity advocate. The list includes heavyweights like Hollywood stars Penelope Cruz, Drew Barrymore and Collin Farrell and soccer sensations Ronaldinho and Kaka from Brazil, who have been campaigning for the reduction of hunger worldwide.

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