Ahead of the Union budget 2021-2022, health and nutrition experts on Monday highlighted the need to increase the budget provisions for child health and nutrition in view of COVID-19 pandemic that has increased vulnerability of kids and pregnant and lactating women.
The call from the experts came at a national webinar organized by Child Rights and You (CRY) India and the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability. The backdrop of the discussion was that while there have been improvements in budgetary allocations in recent past for child health and nutrition and the government and non-government sectors made best efforts to combat adverse effect of COVID-19 on kids and pregnant/lactating women, there is an apprehension that the ‘the potential ripple effect created by COVID-19 might adversely impact different facets of the quality of life, including the nutritional status of vulnerable children’.
It was stressed during the webinar that while India enjoys the status of a food-surplus country, one in every three children in India are still malnourished (CNNS, 2016-18) and only 9.6 per cent children between 6-23 months in the country receive an adequate diet (NFHS-4, 2015-16).
While these data pertain to the period before the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is likely to aggravate now, as the pandemic raises critical pointers to immunity, availability of quality food and nutrition, it was highlighted.
Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY said that while interventions at the micro-level like the ones undertaken by CRY in 19 states of the country are critical, there is a feeling that unless challenges related to adequacy in budgetary allocations, and bottlenecks in utilisation are addressed, we will be unable to mitigate the loss caused due to pandemics such as COVID-19.
“Unless systemic resilience is built and strong mechanisms for public provisioning are ensured, the cumulative effect of community-level interventions would not be visible. As the pandemic impacted nutrition delivery services and nutritional status of pregnant women, children and adolescent girls significantly, we are hopeful that allocations towards child development and nutrition will see an exponential increase in the coming years,” Marwaha said added.
Shruti Ambast, Senior Policy Analyst of CBGA said, “CBGA’s District-level budget analysis of five districts and four states shows high fund utilisation in important centrally sponsored schemes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Integrated Child Development Scheme, MGNREGS, etc. in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. But, fund utilisation was relatively lower for mid-day meals and National Health Mission, indicating that resource absorption capacity is good in certain schemes and some districts/states perform better than others. Sustaining demand for higher allocations therefore becomes crucial.”
Highlighting the vulnerability of adolescents, Mini Varghese, Country Director of Nutrition International said, “Out of school adolescents is a group which is vulnerable to under-nutrition amid the pandemic. And it is not just girls, out of school adolescent boys are equally vulnerable and there are no mechanisms to reach boys.”
Talking about the reforms needed to address bottlenecks in public financing, Avani Kapur, Director, Accountability Initiative, said, “Fund release, approval, reporting and allocation need to be streamlined for better public financial management. We can start small but in schemes like nutrition, decentralization is always the key.”
Stressing on the need to invest in improving nutrition, Shweta Khandelwal, Head of Nutrition Research, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) said, “It is critical to ensure pre-pregnancy well-being for good maternal and child outcomes. Only giving ration to pregnant women and mothers won’t help. We also need to strengthen the social safety nets for women and relook at the nutrition component.”
Dipa Sinha, Assistant Professor, Ambedkar University, Delhi, spoke about food insecurity, shedding light on different determinants to address the issue. She said, “Most people in our country cannot afford a healthy diet. On ground research highlights that hunger is increasing post COVID. Whatever nutritious food people were consuming before COVID, has been decreasing. Malnutrition has different determinants and solving one is not going to address the whole issue but it is vital to do all.”