Imagine that after an animated discussion on nutrition, a film star commits: 'From now on, in all my movies, I will dedicate 5 minutes to the issue of malnutrition and build awareness about prevention.' or
The mayor pledges: 'I will organize awareness camps on malnutrition in all the wards of my city and will try to involve everybody.' or
A Member of Parliament promises: 'Malnutrition free villages will be created in 21 impoverished hamlets. If more money is required, we will provide it from our funds.' or
An editor undertakes: 'Every week we will provide space for the views of experts on malnutrition.' or
The University Vice Chancellor vows: 'We will start a course on health and nutrition in our university, so that we have enough trained people to deal with this problem in India.' or
An industry representative pledges: 'We will adopt 10 malnourished children every year and see to their health care, education, and other day to day requirements.'
Well, these and many more such commitments were publicly made in 21 high-malnutrition districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – two states in India where the levels of malnutrition are alarming.
And the issue also made big splashes in the local media. It’s like a dream come true for us who know what low priority nutrition normally gets, and how we have had to struggle to raise awareness of the issue and build the commitment to tackle it!
In June 2009, capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the newly elected political leadership immediately after India’s national elections, we partnered with the corporate social responsibility arm of a large media house – Dainik Jagran, one of India’s largest media houses - to sensitize a key cross-section of people in each of the 21 districts where malnutrition levels are high.
I must admit I was taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – with the passion with which the matter was discussed – a passion rarely seen in most gatherings of political personages, senior government officials, as well as representatives from civil society, industry, academia and the media.
The number of misconceptions about the causes of the problem and how best to tackle it, even among the medical community, was revealing. A whole gamut of questions were asked: Is food equal to nutrition? Why is malnutrition so high in a rapidly prospering India, particularly in these specific states and districts? What is required to improve the situation? And finally the crux of the matter: What can I do to improve nutrition? This covered a range of issues: allocating the right resources, coordination and monitoring, and finally pinning down accountability for the issue and nailing corruption.
The excitement and energy in the room was palpable. In Moradabad, I saw all the participants raised their right arms and vowed to collectively improve the status of nutrition in the area. In Lucknow, the Principal Secretary of the state’s nodal nutrition department acknowledged that their flagship program had not been focusing on the right things to improve nutrition; they would now focus on the “window of opportunity” to improve nutrition and on changing the feeding and caring practices for infants and young children.
I attribute the success of our efforts to a few key elements: One, the uniqueness of the platform, which brought together all the key players in the decision-making chain on nutrition. With all of them assembled together, there could be no passing the buck or playing the blame game; instead, the focus had to shift to implementing solutions. Two, leveraging the power of the media to spread the message; three, capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the newly elected political leadership to place nutrition on their development agenda; four, involving other development partners to put forward a coordinated action plan; and five careful technical support, planning and monitoring.
The South Asia Regional Development Marketplace was another great opportunity to advocate and build commitment for nutrition and nurture and support innovative strategies to improve the nutrition of infants and young child nutrition in South Asia. I look forward to seeing the successful implementation and fulfillment of all these plans.