Hunger for governance

Nepal has had one emergency heaped on top of another for more than a year now. The Covid-19 emergency, wildfires, and now floods.

Political flux in Kathmandu continues to undermine the state’s ability to respond adequately. But this is nothing new. The most glaring governance failure of Nepal’s rulers for the past decades has been their incompetence in being able to ensure nutrition for its youngest citizens.

Be it during the absolute and constitutional monarchy days, the post-democracy period or now, in the new federal system, the state has failed abjectly in its primary responsibility to fulfil the most basic of all human rights – access to adequate food.

Nepal did reduce childhood stunting from 57% to 36% in the two decades after 1990. But progress stalled because of the conflict and political upheavals. Nearly a third of Nepali children are still stunted due to lack of adequate food, 12% are wasted, and 24% low weight.

The statistics are shocking. Nepal’s hunger hotspots are Far Western Province where 41% of children are stunted, and in Province 2 where 34% of children have low height due to lack of food. A survey in May by Sharecast Initiative and UNICEF shows that one in five families across Nepal reduced the quantity of meals their children ate during the lockdown.

Children have so far been largely spared by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants, but they have become collateral damage in the pandemic. Schools have been closed for most of the past year, and half the students had no access to distance learning. Immunisation drives against pre-existing killer diseases have been disrupted.

More than half of Nepalis lost their jobs in the past month amidst the second wave, and loss of household income has led directly to insufficient food for children.

Hunger is Nepal’s real national epidemic and rampant malnutrition pre-dated the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic has undermined the country’s past gains in battling childhood malnutrition.

To meet its UN sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets, Nepal has to reduce stunting well below 15% and wasting and low weight to less than 5% in the next nine years. At the present rate, we will not meet those goals.

Horrific as the statistics are, zooming down to ground level in Dhanusha and Mahottari districts of Province 2, our Saglo Samajtv magazine report this week shows how much worse things have got during the lockdowns.

Despite Nepal being declared open-defecation free amidst much fanfare, Dalit and other marginalised communities in Dhanusha and Mahottari do not have toilets. If they do have one, there is no running water or soap. They use the same village pond for both humans and cattle, for cleaning and drinking. Things are not much better in pockets in the western mountains. Gastric infections compound malnutrition.

The least the government could do is equitably distribute the ‘nutrition allowance’ allocated for the Dalit families and educate the communities on the basics of sanitation and hygiene.

Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres for severely malnourished children must be set up closer to the communities so that the neediest can access the service. The annual budget on nutrition should be increased so that local health posts have sufficient supplements and micronutrients for new mothers and their children.

The government’s Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan has not delivered as expected, tangled up over jurisdiction under the new federal structure. But it could just as easily deploy Female Community Health Volunteers, and local representatives to discourage child marriage that feeds the vicious cycle of malnutrition and high maternal and child deaths.

Malnutrition is more than the availability of food and access to clean water, it is also confronting patriarchy, casteism and gender discrimination. It is a result of poor governance, lack of accountability and corruption.

But nothing is stopping newly-empowered local governments with technical and financial backing from the centre to now achieve results that Kathmandu’s past centralised governments could not. Training of farmers on climate-smart agriculture, and leasing land to the landless is a good place to start.

Children are hungry because of poverty. Their families are poor because of state neglect. We must draw that causal link between lack of food and failure to deliver it by elected representatives. That is the real scandal the evening news bulletins should be highlighting.

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