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The hidden hunger behind India's huge success

Apr 15, 2009

Journalists Matt Wade and Stephanie Nolen have taken a dig at the irony of two Indias. One that has two Indians among the world’s ten richest people in the 2009 Forbes Rich List and the other that has at least one million infants dying of malnutrition every year.

‘The hidden hunger behind India’s huge success’ is the heading of a report in the Sydney Morning Herald of March 20 written by Matt Wade who visited Khandwa in central India. Ujala, a four-month-old baby who weighs only 1.5 kg, is the focus of his investigations into the problem of malnutrition in India.

“The sagging skin on her tiny limbs and her grossly distended stomach are signs of acute malnutrition. Her hip bones protrude like gross deformities and her face winces with a hacking cough,” writes Wade, explaining to his readers that Ujala is not from Africa but India, “a nation destined to be an economic and political superpower”.

Wade carries on: “Economic reforms initiated in the early 1990s have been good to the rich. The 2009 Forbes Rich List…named two Indians among the world’s 10 wealthiest individuals.

According to some estimates, more than 200 million Indians now have spending power to rival that of consumers in developed countries such as Australia and the US…But India is also home to a quarter of the world’s hungry – about 230 million people – according to a World Food Programme report released last month. More than 455 million Indians survive on US$ 1.25 a day or less, compared with 420 million in 1981.”

"According to some estimates, more than 200 million Indians now have spending power to rival that of consumers in developed countries such as Australia and the US”

At the end of his piece, Wade mentions what research by academics Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze reveals: “A sustained decline in per capita calorie consumption throughout India.”

Downturn impact

Concern is also being voiced about the impact of the current downturn on poverty in India. In New Delhi recently, Save the Children warned that millions of children could go hungry due to the impact of the credit crunch on developing countries, combined with continuing high food prices, which meant that the world’s poorest families cannot feed their children properly.

According to the agency’s statistics, around 3.5 million children die every year because of malnutrition. In India alone, 1 million children’s lives could be saved every year if they were not malnourished. Indian organisations are worried about food insecurity in the country and lack of funding to support aid initiatives.

“The NGO sector has been deeply affected by the recession. This is likely to percolate to the grassroots, where, without funding, the affected will become even more vulnerable,” says Radha Khan, a member of the Hunger Project, an initiative to improve nutrition and health in 14 Indian states.

Amit Sengupta of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, an association of over 1,000 organisations working in healthcare and policy in the country, voiced similar concerns. “We are starting with an already vulnerable base of people, anything that could nudge them over – be it food prices or failures in government policy could yield catastrophic results.”

A complex mixture

“A complex masala of gender, caste, tradition and politics keeps babies hungry. After 15 years of rapid growth, India has made no progress on childhood malnutrition, unlike many poorer nations. Its culture poses many special obstacles – but that could also be the key to change,” says Stephanie Nolen of the Canadian Globe and Mail March 21.

Nolen, the Globe and Mail’s South Asian correspondent nominated for a National Newspaper Award in International Reporting recently for the sixth straight year, says Canadian parents have been invoking malnourished Indian children for three generations to encourage their own children to eat their crusts or lima beans.

She notes that in that time, India has transformed: “India has a booming information technology industry, an exploding middle-class, and cities with sleek subway lines, neighbourhood sushi restaurants and rickshaw drivers who use cellphones. Last year, it sent a rocket to the moon. But there is one thing that has not changed – the rate of childhood malnutrition, which still affects one in five children here and causes 3,000 infant deaths each day.”

Nolen quotes Mahesh Arora, who heads the national child nutrition programme through the Ministry of Women and Child Development, saying: “It is embarrassing. We are trying our level best. You must realise India is a huge country and some areas are doing much better than others.”

“It is embarrassing. We are trying our level best. You must realise India is a huge country and some areas are doing much better than others”

She rightly points out that the worst-off areas are invariably the adivasi areas where poverty is a congenital condition.

Nolen refers to how breastfeeding – a free, critical intervention that can make a massive difference in survival past the first month of life – is a fraught part of the nutrition puzzle here.

Nolen says this may be the single greatest cause of India’s vicious malnutrition problem: “The striking lack of autonomy of women, especially young women and those in rural areas.”

Ranking badly

Anne Philpott, an adviser on nutrition to the British international development office in India, explains to Nolen why a state such as Madhya Pradesh, compared with African countries that have similar populations, ranks so badly on malnutrition: Women may in general be oppressed in Ethiopia and Congo as well, but they have autonomy over feeding their children.

Nolen also refers to the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme: “While it has been praised for its ambition, it is cumbersome and badly managed.” But she praises the right to food lobby and others who fought to persuade the Supreme Court to order the Indian government to take steps such as serving midday meals at all public primary schools and providing grain at highly subsidised prices to millions of destitute households.

Yet the very success of this coalition means that the focus of discussion has been on feeding schoolchildren – a debate over whether to provide them with enriched biscuits or a pre-cooked meal dominated the discussion in the national Parliament all last year. But the most crucial part of the malnutrition crisis in India has to do with babies, long before their school years. “By the time we’re talking about food,” says Anne Philpott, “it’s too late”.

The article has been collated from The Economist, Indo-Asian News Service and Sydney Morning Herald.

Source : Infochange
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