Tackling malnutrition in times of COVID-19: How Odisha managed this juggling act
While Odisha was being considerably ranked low in many indices at the national level, the most important feature of the state government during the current time has been the dynamic and evolving governance structure
India is home to half of the wasted children (those with a low weight for their height) globally, according to the recent Global Nutrition Report 2020. Moreover, more than a third (37.9 percent) of our children under the age of five years are stunted, and over a fifth (20.8 percent) are wasted, the report further highlights.
Malnutrition programmes in India have come under increased strain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are reports that the stringent national lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 adversely affected programmes that aim to curb malnutrition like the delivery of food under the mid-day meal scheme and the functioning of the Anganwadi centres under ICDS. As many as 115 million children depend on the mid-day meal for their daily dietary requirements.
However, the Government of Odisha under the leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik used this very otherwise well-oiled woman-led machinery to combat the challenge posed due to the pandemic.
Initiatives under the Odisha government
According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4, Odisha has witnessed a steep decline in malnutrition in children under five and has been declared as a champion state. This has been made possible through a plethora of well conceived woman- and child-centric welfare schemes and an extremely committed implementation mechanism.
In early 2020, Odisha allocated Rs 5,543 crore to introduce a one-of-a-kind nutrition budget (the first in the country) to front this decade's long fight led by Anganwadi centres, schools and health institutions. With existing policies like PDS and ICDS, the state has tried to improve functionality and effectiveness of departments of Food Supply and Consumer Welfare, School and Mass Education, SC and ST Development, Health and Family Welfare, Housing and Urban Development, Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water, Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment, and Fisheries and Animal Resource Development and brought synergy within them. The budget allocation has two components — 'nutrition-specific' and 'nutrition-sensitive', to target micro-level impact along with improving overall nutritious food availability.
Odisha has also created a separate department called Mission Shakti under the Women and Child Development Ministry to intensify the focus of SHG livelihood initiatives including tackling malnutrition at the household level. Allocation of the 'nutrition budget' has also laid the foundation for Odisha Millets Mission (OMM) led by SHG women across the state, educating the masses on nutritious cooking and diet with a mobile kitchen model.
Odisha's 4 Cs approach
Call for action: Odisha's chief minister Naveen Patnaik alerted the administration as well his party, the Biju Janata Dal, with a call for action as early as the first week of March. While declaring a statewide lockdown, he urged people to strictly follow social distancing but deployed statewide resources to ensuring ample food supply for everyone for the next quarter.
Collective action: The state departments collectively mobilised food grains from storage to every district. This strategy was formulated even before the national lockdown announcement and enabled 2,356 Fair Price shops in 4,004 gram panchayats, 5,922 private shops, 2,034 SHGs networks and 69 Maitree shops with stringent social distancing norms.
Connectivity: Odisha's strong and well-established network of SHGs led by more than seven lakh women donned unorthodox leadership roles during the pandemic to not only keep the nutrition supply machinery going for the existing beneficiaries, but to reach out to almost all households of the state and spread awareness about the pandemic during the crucial initial days of the virus. They also supported community outreach efforts of the local administration in food supply.
In many networks, the SHGs have themselves undertaken delivery of cooked meals to senior citizens, differently-abled people, pregnant and lactating women and children under five years of age in the rural-tribal Odisha.
Coverage: Unlike many states, the Government of Odisha has distinctively been able to cover maximum population including the migrant labourers inth the state. Besides the food supply guarantee, the state actively distributed Rs 1,000 per ration card including new beneficiaries. The mid-day meal and TPDS supplies are strategically diverted towards volunteering kitchens.
Lessons from Odisha
Odisha faced the same pandemic that has brought many a state governments to a halt. While Odisha was being considerably ranked low in many indices at the national level, the most important feature of the state government during the current time has been the dynamic and evolving governance structure. It has made efforts to strengthen community-based guidelines to tackle the burden of malnutrition at the grassroots level, through community health systems and by empowering local governance.
Its innovative and decisive approach towards the problem solving by empowering community linkages and aligning resources behind it could be the most basic yet effective policy intervention that other states could learn from. However, admittedly district level disparities exist. More than 22 percent of Odisha's population is tribal, a population group with one of the highest rates of malnutrition and infant mortality rate. The government has since drawn up targeted interventions from within the existing schemes to address this issue.
The author is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha; a former CAG bureaucrat with a Masters in Public Management from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore and the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and an academic with a PhD in management.
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