Prof. T K Thomas

Prof. T K Thomas

Last week, Delhi witnessed a large number of weddings and food festivals. The week I am told, had auspices days for weddings. It is absolutely legitimate for parents in the Indian context to shower their affection on their children at such receptions by converting them into memorable events with great festivities, the finale of which is a lavish lunch or dinner. After attending one such reception a few thoughts or rather concerns flashed in my mind. Observing small children guzzling down glasses of aerated soft drinks was one such concern. The quantity and variety of food was another. Children and even adults were seen unabashedly filling their plates which was actually much beyond their consumption capacity. It was sad to see the amount of food wasted by them in the end. Is it not a sin to waste precious food when starvation and malnutrition indices in the country are abysmal?

It was by sheer coincidence that after I started finalizing this piece, I happened to watch a Whatsapp video forwarded by a friend. This six minutes video [ credited as Muthukad with UNICEF] was in Malayalam by the renowned magician and social activist Gopinath Muthukad on the UN World Social Justice Day observed on 20th February. While explaining the concept of social justice he pointed out that there should be justice in all aspects including food, clothing and education. He then focused on food and quoted an experienced chef of a five star hotel who said that he feels sad about the amount of food wasted every day by the hotel guests and how truck loads of wasted food is disposed of by such hotels. Muthukad concluded that we need to make ourselves and our children aware that it is criminal to waste food at home or at parties or in restaurants while millions of people, especially children are starving.

Successive governments have taken steps against poverty, hunger and starvation in the country despite major government programmes but problem continues to haunt the country. This is also despite new initiatives of the government and the primacy given to Eradication of Extreme Poverty and Hunger, under the Millennium Development Goals [2000 to 2015] and the ongoing Sustainable Development Goals which start with ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’. Our standing in the 2019 world hunger index is 102 out of 117 qualifying nations with a score of 30.3, a level of hunger that is considered serious. The index is calculated on the basis of four indicators, viz. child mortality, under-nourishment, child wasting [weight for age] and stunting [low height for age].

Malnutrition continues to be the main cause for the above problems. A 2017 study by the Indian Council of Medical Research [ICMR], Public Health Foundation of India [PHFI] and National Institute of Nutrition [NIN] points at malnutrition to be the predominant risk factor for death of children below five years at 68.2 per cent which works out to 706,000 in 2017. It was also the leading risk factor among all age groups. Poverty or inability of the families to afford adequate nutritious food naturally is the main reason for this and 21. 9 per cent of our population is living below the poverty line [BPL], as per the indices.

Today’s child, anywhere in the world is facing a bleak future as far as their health and wellbeing are concerned. There are startling revelations to this effect in the report of the World Health Organization [WHO]-UNICEF-LANCET Commission’s, “A Future for the World’s Children?” [www.who.int/news] released last week. It is not often that the title of such reports puts a question mark at the end raising serious concerns about the health of children in the world. The report in no uncertain terms states that, “the world is failing to provide children with a healthy life and a climate fit for their future.”This landmark report released by the Commission of over forty child and adolescent health experts from around the world has been funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat from ecological degradation, climate change and exploitative marketing practices. “While the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions -disproportionately from wealthier countries- threaten the future of all children. If global warming exceeds 4 degree C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heat-waves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition.”

The other threat children face according to the report is the harmful commercial marketing that target children. Our children are exposed to commercial marketing of junk- food, and sugary beverages that lead to purchase of unhealthy foods. Suneel Vatsyayan, chairman of Nada India, who has been working in the field of prevention of non communicable diseases [NCDs], considers alcohol and unhealthy diet as major risk factors for NCDs. He is a Steering Group member of Community of Practice [COP] hosted by the WHO Global Coordination Mechanism on NCDs and works with young people. At a Nada India workshop on NCD awareness in the Chattarpur village, Mincy, a young health advocate shared her experience of how instead of a soft drink she had chosen a packed flavored ‘lassi’ as a healthier option. She added that it was for the first time that she read the contents of the product printed at the back of the pack. Nada India aims at organizing such workshops ‘My Community and I” to train young people in the skills to become health advocates and join the “ Young India Network for Good Health”. Vatsyayan points out how packaged junk food, juices and soft drinks manufacturers advertise their products targeting gullible children and parents who try to meet all their needs, generally based on the ads they have seen on television or due to peer pressure. Children thus become victims of non communicable diseases [NCDs] affecting their health and well being and parents often ignore these aspects. No wonder obesity in children is becoming a major hazard and there is a spurt in the number of pediatric diabetes.

There are regulatory agencies and concerned citizens who accuse companies makers of such products often promoted as health food or drink. Some of such products banned in developed countries are heavily advertised during sports and entertainment programmes. Agencies like Food Safety and Standards Authority of India [FSSAI] endeavor to improve public health in India and combat negative nutritional trends to fight lifestyle diseases which are actually non communicable diseases [NCDs]. It is heartening that in July 2018, FSSAI launched the “The Eat Right Movement”. This movement provides a platform for the food industry, public health professionals, civil society and consumer organizations, influencers and celebrities to come together and pledge to take concrete steps to motivate people to be part of the movement and empower citizens to make right food choices. FSSAI through this movement urge the food industry to reformulate their products, provide better nutritional information to consumers like complete details of the products like ingredients and their composition, dates of manufacturing and expiry etc. People ought to know details of contents of sugar, salt, refined oil, colors, preservatives etc. For a healthy future of our children eternal vigil is needed to guard against any undesirable products being marketed.

Agricultural products including grains, pulses, fruits and vegetables we buy in the open markets have heavy presence of poisonous pesticides and chemical preservatives and fertilizers. ‘Down to Earth’ carried a detailed report on one of the worst and longest running pesticide poisoning in India due to widespread use of a pesticide, ’Endosulfan’ in Kerala. It was used on crops like cashew, cotton, tea, paddy, fruits and other agricultural products till the Supreme Court banned its production and distribution. It had deadly effects on people’s health causing neurotoxicity, late sexual maturity, physical deformities and even death, according to the report. Children were the worst affected.

Chemicals are used as harmful ripening for fruits and for increasing the weight of certain common vegetables. Some of these chemicals are carcinogenic. Similarly, South Indian media have been reporting about the widespread use of ‘Formalin’ in meat, seafood etc, a strong solution of formaldehyde in liquid form, commonly used as a disinfectant or as embalming agents in mortuaries. They have severe effects on health. Use of such chemicals in food products is widespread and consumers need to be careful about what they buy.

We have enough laws and regulatory bodies to ensure that healthy food is advertised and marketed so that public health is not jeopardized. But the problem is poor implementation, corruption and easy availability of unhealthy food. Our markets are flooded with plenty of food products universally accepted as unhealthy. Stricter regulations and their implementation are the only remedies to curb this problem to ensure the safety of our children.