ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Hidden Hunger, Burdened Women

Challenges for Food and Nutrition Security Interventions

Reminiscent of poverty debates, serious undernutrition in India risks becoming a measurement quibble, unless we talk about unequal development gains and the answerability of governments towards less empowered citizens. Based on the simple counting of food consumed by 240 households and conversations with women, this article explores the contrast between local knowledge of what constitutes a “good diet” and the deficient meals consumed by people in Odisha, a state in eastern India. Effective interventions need to look beyond “maternal responsibility” and address entitlement uncertainties and gender inequality, in order to ensure essential nutrition and good health of vulnerable groups such as women and children.

The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewer/s for their insightful suggestions on an early draft that has contributed to the present version of the article. This article derives from a study conducted on behalf of the civil society organisation South Orissa Voluntary Action (SOVA), Koraput, Odisha, in 2015–16. The author would like to acknowledge the commitment and contribution of the experienced team members of SOVA, especially Ramprasad Patnaik, Gourishankar Rao, Suprabha Nisanka, Pramila Sahu, Sanjukta Das and Leon Takri for help with data collection and Sanjit Patnaik and Bubu Saha for overall support. The original study was sponsored by the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), India. The views expressed in this article are of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of SOVA or VSO, India.


It was a bright spring morning in Dharapadar village as we sat talking to a group of women about their diets and health. From the cemented seating area under a banyan tree, agricultural fields rose upwards into the hills, dotted with flaming silk cotton trees. Low-lying (bil) fields of that village had been submerged by the upper Kolab reservoir. Most people cultivated hill plots during the rain months for a crop of rice or mandia (ragi/finger millets), but a majority were dependent on non-farm labour. Several children roamed freely. One young boy, of around 12 years, carried his infant sister. On being asked why he was not in school, he said that he must look after his sister, as his parents were away for two months, in a distant village, threshing mandia. They were left in the care of his infirm grandmother and had not had a morning meal.

Older children, who cared for younger siblings when their parents went for wage work, were often out of school and missed the mid-day meal. Here, boys and girls entered wage labour early and dropped out of school. In the second village, we saw a small girl eating a meal of boiled rice with two pieces of cauliflower. She had fetched it herself and stood outside her house eating it. An infant cried loudly while being cradled by her grandmother in a third village. Though old enough to eat solid food, she was, according to the old woman, crying for breast milk. The childs mother, who was in her third trimester of pregnancy, had gone to harvest mandia. In the previous year, she had lost a child soon after birth.

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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