The Way It Is: Spectre of Under-Nourishment


The world is endangered by the threat of an environmental disaster mostly due to global warming caused by excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. World leaders have decided to drastically cut down emissions, one method being a drastic reduction of the use of fossil fuel. The spectre of under-nourishment haunts: most prevalent in children, adults are also susceptible to it, particularly expectant women and lactating mothers.

Just as attention on global warming, climate change and how to save the earth from overheating and seas rising are often thrust to the back burner as other, more urgent crises take over, so do urgent matters disperse the study of the extent of under-nourishment; assessment and remedial measures to be taken distract the authorities. The Ukraine war and global recession have taken hold of world interests, thus pushing the environment aside. In this country all the troubles and problems consequent to mismanagement of national financial matters and Government, have swamped the problem faced by people on account of their young children being subject to undernourishment.

Definitions may be useful to clear perceptions in our heads. Undernourishment is caused by being supplied with or taking less than the minimum amount of nutriments or foods essential to maintain sound health and growth. Malnourishment is the same: lack of proper nutrition but not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right foods or being unable to use the food that one does eat. Malnutrition in all its forms, includes under nutrition (wasting stunting, underweight), inadequate vitamins or minerals, overweight, obesity. This is the extreme form.

Two stated opinions

Dr Rohan Pethiyagoda, recent winner of the prestigious Linnean Award, drew a very bleak picture about insufficient nutrition substantiating what he said with facts, figures, statistics. He said that two million of our population are below 12 years of age. Most of them are undernourished. That was shocking but believable and will be direly increased with the escalating food prices; fish, meat and proteins hardly affordable by even middle income families; and the ban on fertilisers cutting agricultural production, even paddy harvests by roughly half of earlier gatherings and harvests.  Daily wage earners are often without work and money is lacked by very many people. Hence nutritious meals are a rarity now and becoming more so as time goes on; until farmers and vegetable growers are able to get back to their way of cultivation which will take at least two years.

On the same day, half an hour later, the now Minister of Health, Keheliya Rambukwella, had his press conference  televised on TV One News in English.  He was all breezy, and when questioned, about malnutrition, said there was no problem. The Government ensured that children got proper nourishment. A blatant lie, really. People are near starving and schools remain closed. The mid-day bun and glass of milk for children in less affluent schools was stopped some time ago, I presume. So how does the Government ensure proper nutrition when they do not have local rupees even to spend on necessities?

Rohan went on to say that nutrition can be alleviated in spite of the price of fish nowadays. He said the small fish, cheapest karalla – is very nutritious. He quoted that very many acres of fresh water in wewas etc are available and can be used for fresh water fish breeding. He said 12 per cent of water masses are used for this purpose.

I well remember fresh water fish and prawn breeding were promoted early in President Premadasa’s time or previous to him. Then a monk came along and said it was not a good occupation for people to undertake: as it involved killing. Counter argument is that lower in the hierarchy fish are killed to give better health to the highest in the scale of living things – humans. But of course wanting votes from Buddhists, fresh water fish breeding was banned. It has to be taken up with much more effort and determination now.

Rohan commented on the Thriposha scheme which he said was an excellent way of giving nutriment to children, expectant mothers and others who required extra nutriment. Due to needing money to buy essentials the scheme was abandoned. Rohan very cynically mentioned that at that very time around 700 (if I remember the number correctly) motor bikes were bought for the police. 

In the last proper budget presented in Parliament, the allocation of funds to the Army was greater than the amounts given to Health and Education Ministries combined. Need one say more? The Government seems totally indifferent to the problem of mass malnutrition that will sweep across Sri Lanka.