‘Eradicating social taboos with regard to diversified meals crucial in fighting malnourishment’

Bishow Parajuli said that people have to be told that consuming only rice or bread with minimal quantities of vegetable or dal would lead to malnourishment.

Eliminating social taboos with regard to food diversification is crucial for improving nourishment levels among the Indian population, Bishow Parajuli, the representative and country director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), said in an exclusive interaction with indianexpress.com.

He added that people have to be told that consuming only rice or bread with minimal quantities of vegetable or dal would lead to malnourishment.

Excerpts from the interview:

The WFP has been working in India since 1963. What has it achieved in the country in the last few years?

In the last decade or so, our focus has been more on the areas of technical support, demonstrating best practices, and observing evidence with a stress on partnering with the Union and state governments for the public distribution system (PDS). We have also been working towards improving nutrition levels under the MDM scheme and the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) programme.

We have also been supporting responses to climate change by looking into grassroot-level accounts of hunger and malnutrition, among others.

Has the WFP observed a consistent improvement in combating the challenge of ensuring adequate nourishment levels in India?

India has transformed from a food-deficit country to a food-surplus country. With a biometric system – One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) –covering food supplies for nearly 800 million people, the midday meal (MDM) scheme catering to 120 million beneficiaries, and other schemes covering anganwadis, among others, India has improved on many fronts.

Also, despite the amazing efforts taken during the pandemic, the issue of malnutrition persists in the country. It is unfortunate that high levels of stunting and anaemia are prevalent in some states.

The recent announcement made by the prime minister towards rice fortification — distributed through ration shops, MDM or ICDS — is a good step forward. The latest decision to expand the MDM scheme to PM Poshan (The Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nourishment) has been taken after a clear realisation that nutritional support is imperative from childhood till a certain age. These intensified efforts are expected to improve the situation.

After the outbreak of the pandemic, what has been the greatest learning for the WFP in India? Has it hampered the advancements made in the last few years in any way?

Sadly, Covid-19 has resulted in huge job losses and retarded growth opportunity. With the subsequent second wave of the pandemic leaving behind a lasting impact, food and nutritional intake has been affected adversely as well. Continuous efforts should be made to take all nutritional schemes forward at the state level as well. This can help ensure that beneficiaries get self-sufficient over time and are able to tackle a similar crisis in the future.

The WFP has learned how food systems can be reimagined from India’s ability to respond swiftly to the pandemic, widening coverage to migrants through ONORC, and realising how to work towards improving a diversified meal. Eliminating social taboos with regard to food diversification is crucial for improving nourishment levels. Also, the campaign to inform citizens that consuming only rice or bread with minimal quantities of vegetable or dal leads to malnourishment has to be taken up on a wider scale now.

What is your observation on several states including Karnataka continuing to report malnourishment in children?

Stunted growth and malnutrition depend on various factors other than the lack of adequate food. Poor sanitation, limited access to health facilities and insufficient distribution of clean drinking water must also be considered.

Addressing malnutrition needs a wholesome approach. At times, we have heard from anganwadi workers that caste practices restrict food diversification. With Karnataka being a rich state, the government will be able to overcome this by seeking support from us and other related players in this sector.

What is WFP’s next big plan to improve the situation in India?

The WFP is devising and implementing a country-specific strategy in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations by refining our approach to help the governments improve all ongoing programmes, on the technological front as well to address farming requirements in response to climate change.

We are focusing on states like Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan at present. With more resources and support expected in the coming years, we would be able to partner governments of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and north-eastern states.

What is your biggest takeaway from this visit to Bengaluru?

Eliminating hunger is not solely the responsibility of the government. While there are gaps in implementing the National Food Security Act and the distribution of ration cards in some states, efforts made by the WFP and civil society organisations like The Akshaya Patra Foundation (TAPF) become important in ensuring that none is left behind.

With this visit, my primary intention was to strengthen the strategic alliance we (WFP) have with TAPF and to seek options on how our collaboration can reach more schools in India, to our immediate neighbours and beyond.

We have also realised how a public-private partnership (PPP) model would work best. Large-scale centralised kitchens, like that used by TAPF, had helped in food distribution even during the pandemic. Governments can bring in such collaborations to minimise the burden of planning and logistics, and implement such schemes in a hassle-free manner, even during unprecedented situations.

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