Fishing the protein out

NUTRITION DEFICIENCY

Countryside visits in Western Ghats districts always bring new insights for me. Interactions with Kumbri Marathi tribals in Mundgod taluk of Uttara Kannada district in western Karnataka, for instance, has taught me how nutrition security is evolved among them.

Children could be seen in spring in yester years, playing in farms with a handful of just-harvested rabi groundnuts. And, some other kids would roam along streams for pastime fishing. However, those views are getting rare now. Children neither have peanuts in palms nor engrossed in fishing in local ponds.

Studies on these rural dynamics reveal the reasons behind such shift.  The widespread deforestation and the globally evident climate change are together leaving severe impact on the life and livelihood of tribal and small farmers.

Of the many issues of serious concern that bloom out of that, nutrition deficiency is a significant one. The cereals, sugar given through the Public Distribution System (PDS) might have helped them to escape from hunger.

But micronutrients like proteins and minerals are still missing in their plates. Surveys show young population complaining about chronic weakness, indigestion, muscle catch, insomnia, hair fall, brittle nails and so on.

Lack of proper body growth and immunity in children are too widely observed. Medical experts attribute all these to protein deficiency, a form of hidden hunger.

Reasons for this micro-nutrient shortage among rural poor in Malnad districts like this are many. The practice of consuming home-reared chicken and eggs have come down.

Besides, protein yielding pulses like ground nut, black gram, chickpea etc, which were once common in rabi season, have almost vanished now.

The recurring draughts have degraded farm fertility and vaporised soil moisture. It is making second crop impossible. As winter crops disappeared, protein started slipping away from their food bowl.

Fish has been another key protein source for these rural communities from time immemorial. But the ponds and streams are drying up now as rainfall has reduced and siltation has increased. Cascading effects of deforestation, soil erosion, indiscriminate sand mining and riverside encroachment are all causing damage to these natural water channels. As they are vanishing, the freshwater fishes found there like Murgod, Rohu, Katla, Mahseer, Magur, Vaamand crabs are also disappearing.

Today for them, fish means the sea borne ones like, Salmon, Barramundi, Pomfret, Seer Fish, Stingray, Bangda (Mackerel), Sardine and prawns sold in market. Only a few can afford to buy them at high price, which come from distant coastal areas.

For the rest of the majority, it is luxury. Nature-dependent communities, whom ecologists Madhav Gadgil and Ramchandra Guha describe as ‘ecosystem people’, have really been the first casualty of dwindling forests and changing climate.

The magnitude of malnutrition in India is of course well known. The government reports only accept that nearly half the population is suffering from either calorie or protein deficit.

It makes India stand at 103 on Global Hunger Index as per latest assessment of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Karnataka too follows the same graph.

As per recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS), it has around 1.2 million children of age six years below who are underweight. Even HUNGaMA (hunger and malnutrition) survey released in 2018 by the Naandi Foundation has estimated that nearly 59% children of age below five years are stunted.

But the hidden protein deficiency as recorded in Mundgod, does not get adequately represented in these statistics. As they say, nutrition crisis continues to be the “ghost in the party”.

Being committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 aiming at overcoming malnutrition by 2030, the government has indeed launched several schemes. The Union Rural Development Ministry has National Rural Livelihoods Mission which has nutrition security component as well.

Now, the National Nutrition Mission (NNM) is in place with a huge budget. In Karnataka, the Health Department is establishingthe Nutrition Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs) for taking care of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) children.

The World Bank-funded Karnataka Comprehensive Nutrition Mission (KCNM), is implemented as a pilot project. The ‘Sanjeevini’ scheme of Karnataka State Rural Livelihood Promotion Society (KARLPS), promoted by state rural development department, is laying out many programmes.

But all these incentive-based interventions are treating only the symptoms, not healing the root cause by rejuvenating the natural ecosystems.

Fishery scenario is no better. In fact, there is no agency or plan at all in the government that can tackle the issue of declining fish yield in natural streams and ponds. The fundamental challenge now, therefore, is how soon rural natural habitats be restored.  Direct interventions like schemes providing nutritional supplements are needed to address the emergencies.  

Climate change

Beyond that, however, the vulnerable population needs to be empowered to escape from impact of deforestation and climate change.

If the pulses of rabi crops, and fish and crabs in local ponds and streams, can put the protein back in their daily diet, then it is sustainable.

The steps like increasing forest cover and farmland fertility, revitalising natural water bodies – all of these matter a lot. The village streams and ponds, for instance, can be given a new life by employing rural employment guarantee (MGNREG) scheme.

Watershed projects with afforestation and rainwater harvesting components could be taken up in every gram panchayat. Comprehensive strategies with such institutional mechanisms and effective tools seem to be the way forward now.

Protein supplements apart, flowing streams and rabi crops may offer multiple livelihood opportunities. That would reduce rural youth turning ecological refugees going as urban labourers too.  

Wish the days come soon for those tribal children in rural Mundgod in Western Ghats, to brim in joy with basketful of locally harvested groundnuts and freshly caught fish.

(The writer is a conservation biologist)

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