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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Little children go hungry in India

India is on the go to achieve greater heights but in the rush to get there, are we leaving our younger and defenceless citizens behind? A report suggests that our under 6 year olds are malnourished, stunted and usually not immunised against dieseases. In fact, their plight may be worse that expected. India has the highest rate of malnourished children, India also has the dubious record of having the highest number of children who are sexually abused and the highest rate of child labour. As usual, India seems to score the highest in the worst possible denominations.

The recent National Family Health Survey shows that 79% are anaemic, 46% are undernourished and 27% are stunted. Economist and Right to Food activist, Jean Dreze told CNBC-TV18, "These figures are embarrassing in several ways. Firstly, they confirm that the levels of child malnutrition in India is the highest in the world, which was also known for quite sometime. What is perhaps more embarrassing is that according to the same survey, there has been no improvement in child nutrition in the last eight years, despite runaway economic growth - this is truly alarming and should be a matter of national debate."

"I think it's also embarrassing that it has eight years for us to know this. I mean, why has it taken eight years for a survey to note this and why have such important facts and figures have not yet been officially released."

A UN report called 'Progress for Children' shows that the percentage of malnourished in India is almost twice that of sub-Sahara Africa, three times that of Thailand, six times that of China and is shockingly, is worse that Afghanistan! Supreme Court Commissioner on the Right to Food, NC Saxena admits this is an embarrassment, especially since the economy has grown by 8% every year and malnutrition has gone down by just 1% in that time period.

Executive Director of Haq, Meenakshi Ganguly says that this reflects the poliical will towards our children. She says, "When we were looking at the number of questions raised on children in Parliament, we found only an average of 3% of questions were raised on any issue by legislators - so that's the interest they have in our children."

In India, the worst offender against children is the state of Uttar Pradesh. Here are some figures - 52% of children under 3 years are undernourished and 28% of the deaths of children nationwide, happen in this state. Food meant for children is given to cattle. This kind of situation continues because of the lack of political will and as CEO of Child Rights and You, CRY, Ingrid Srinath puts it, "it reflects on our failure collectively. We've failed to make it important for our politicians to address the needs of our children."

NC Saxena feels that malnourishment have been targeted well by some states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra while many other states have fallen behind. But he feels the target audience should be children between 1-3 years, the programmes should be taken to remote tribal villages and Dalit bastis and health and sanitation should also be looked at holistically - only, then can the Integrated Child Development Scheme or ICDS be considered successful.

The Supreme Court has ordered the government to roll out 14 lakh aanganwadis (day care centres) by 2008 - so they have been given 2 more years to universalise the ICDS scheme. Saxena's says, "I won't say the government has ignored the order - in fact, ICDS centres have expanded from 5.5 lakhs to 11 lakhs - so the government has tried to increase the number - but these centres have not become operational, which is why it is the state government's fault. The procedures are very long and the government has not tried to simplify the procedures."

He adds, "You have to make budgetary provisions through Parliament, through the assemblies and then recruit and all other kinds of formalities need to be completed."

Tamil Nadu is a state, which has a 75 year old social history that has empowered rural and local governments, feel Srinath, and therefore, they have been able to overlook factors like caste, class, gender and provide their children with adequate food, while in Uttar Pradesh, this is not the case. Ganguly agrees and says that, politicians have to be made accountable for this major problem, and they have gotten away because they have not been held accountable systematically.

Dreze also suggests that the government looks at spending on children's health and well being as a form of investment for the future. He also feels that just because they don't have the right to vote, they can't be politically marginalised, as they are going to be the citizens of tomorrow.

Written for www.moneycontrol.com

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