In terms of numbers, India has the highest number of ‘zero-food children’ at more than 6 million. Photo for representation.
| Photo Credit: AFP

Sunita Gautam, a 26-year-old domestic help, wonders if she will be able to provide her 11-month-old infant boy the nutrition he requires. “My child is mainly dependent on breastmilk. At times, I give him porridge, but that’s not every day as he takes time to eat and is more habituated to breastmilk. My daily routine is very busy. If I don’t earn money, how I provide a better life to my child?” Ms. Gautam, who belongs to a Scheduled Caste (SC) community and works in Lucknow’s Vishal Khand area, said.

Ms. Gautam’s baby, called Babu as is customary across the Hindi belt, is likely to be one of millions of ‘zero food’ children aged six months to 23 months in Uttar Pradesh. These infants have not eaten any food of substantial calorific content — semi-solid/ solid/ soft/ mushy foods, infant formula or fresh milk — for 24-hours.

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A study published recently in the peer reviewed JAMA Network Open journal found the prevalence of ‘zero-food children’ in India at 19.3%, drawing attention to extreme food deprivation among children. The study ranks India as having the third highest percentage of zero-food children, above only Guinea (21.8%) and Mali (20.5%). In terms of numbers, India has the highest number of ‘zero-food children’ at more than six million.

The problem of such extreme food deprivation is severe among children in U.P. A study published in 2023 in eClinical Medicine, part of the noted Lancet Discovery Science, found that U.P. alone accounts for 28.4% of ‘zero-food children’ in India.

“The states of Uttar Pradesh (28.4%), Bihar (14.2%), Maharashtra (7.1%), Rajasthan (6.5%), and Madhya Pradesh (6%) account for nearly two-thirds of the total zero-food children in India,” the report said.

Breastfeeding cannot provide infants with the necessary nutrition after they are six months old. Introducing solid or semi-solid foods alongside breastfeeding plays a pivotal role in early childhood growth and development. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the share of other food contributing to calorific requirements should be about 50% for children aged nine to 11 months (that is, 300 out of 700 Kcal/day), while the share of breastmilk should be greater than other food for children aged six-eight months (that is, 400 out of 600 Kcal/day).

“My husband is alcoholic. He spends most of his time at home but I cannot trust him to feed the child. He may harm the child as it takes time to feed him (the baby),” Ms. Gautam said. Her son is the answer to many pilgrimages and prayers, after she delivered two daughters, as the latter led to criticism from her in-laws and family.

Uma Chauhan, a cook, has also not been able to consistently provide food for her eight-month-old baby girl. “I try to provide semi-solid food or soft foods, but I am not able to do it regularly as I work in four houses,” she said.

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Both women are neither aware of the government’s flagship Poshan Abhiyan targeting holistic development and adequate nutrition for children, pregnant women and mothers, and primarily focused on children in the 0-6 years age group. The long-term adverse impact of inadequate nutrition for children has been established.

Shalini Singh, a public health specialist with two decades of experience in nutrition programmes, argues that the alongside poverty and marginalisation in economic backgrounds, it’s rapid urbanisation and nuclearised families that have contributed to such a large number of ‘zero food children’ in the India’s most populous State.

“Women from underprivileged economic backgrounds work to sustain their families, resulting in their having insufficient time to complement breastfeeding for children above six months of age. With rapid industrialisation, nuclear families have grown in both urban and rural areas, so there is no one to invest the time and energy required to feed a child, apart from the mother,” she said, adding that lack of awareness about nutritional needs of children, and social misconceptions, also contribute to the likely numbers.

U.P.’s urban population in approximately 23% according to the 2011 Census, and had grown by more than 25% in 2011 when compared with 2001, signifying a large number of poor moving towards urban centres in search of a livelihood.

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