National Shame: Young and hungry mouths of India

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There is something seriously disturbing about villages in the Raichur district of Karnataka. As stunted and malnourished children cry in hunger pangs and helpless parents look for support from authorities, story of Raichur portrays India's endemic problem of hunger and deprivation.

children eat

Over 2,600 children under the age of 6 years have died of malnutrition in Raichur district of Karnataka during the past two years, as per data provided by women and child welfare department.

India's tragedy is once again reflected in the latest report "Nutrition Barometer", announced by a voluntary organisation - 'Save the Children' recently.

India stands bottom in the nutrition barometer and shares its position along with countries like Angola, Cameroon, Congo and Yemen.

Save the Children's Nutrition Barometer is a study of nutrition-specific commitments by 36 developing countries across the globe. The study finds India sharing space with two other countries at the bottom of the table, failing on both commitments and outcomes. The Barometer aims to provide a snapshot of union governments' political, legal and financial commitments and progress in addressing child nutrition. It gauges these commitments that are measurable and comparable across a diverse group of 36 countries that together account for 90 per cent of the world's stunted children.

Shocking Statistics

The study makes some shocking disclosures. According to the report, almost half of Indian children are underweight and stunted, and more than 70 per cent of women and kids have serious nutritional deficiencies such as anaemia.

The data reveals that children in poor households are more than twice as likely to be stunted as those in affluent ones.

Even in the wealthy families, one child in five is undernourished, says the study.

The number of children dying before their fifth birthday declined from 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011 globally, the data adds.

"In contrast to this overall positive trend, progress in reducing childhood under nutrition has been tardy. It remains the underlying cause of more than a third of all child deaths worldwide at around 2.3 million in 2011. India's neighbours like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal are also part of the report, but they fare better than the big brother in dealing with malnutrition," says the study.

"We know the geographic areas and the social groups where malnutrition levels are the highest. We also know the reasons. The report is a pointer to the need to back political commitment with adequate resources and effective mechanisms," Save the Children India's CEO Thomas Chandy said.

Hunger and Death

Save the Children report says that malnutrition is one of the biggest causes of child mortality in India. Health experts say that being undernourished affects not only the physical but also the mental development of the child.

While under-five mortality declined from 107 in 1995 to 64 in 2009, at the present rate India will reach 54 against the target of 42 by 2015.

The study indicates that maternal under nutrition, long-term exposure to a poor diet and repeated infections have also left 165-170 million children under-five stunted, preventing them from reaching their full potential.

Hunger: "National Shame"

Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has branded malnutrition among children a "national shame", after a report said nearly half of children under five in the country were underweight.

According to the report, 42 per cent of children in that age bracket are suffering from malnutrition.

Singh said the level of malnutrition in India was "unacceptably high".

The Hunger and Malnutrition Report also said that one in three malnourished children in the world is Indian.

Reasons behind malnourishment

One doesn't require opinion from experts to find out the reasons behind malnourishment. We all know, India is a country where more than half-of-its population are living below the poverty line. Acute poverty, unemployment, poor income and lack of health services coupled with government's apathy towards providing food for all has made hunger a "national disease" for underprivileged children.

Figures say that India hardly spends on health programmes. Only 1.67% of GDP has been earmarked in the 12th Plan for health.

Corruption and Food

India has the largest nutrition programme, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), in the world. Obviously, there is something intrinsically wrong with the entire implementation of the programme. Otherwise, so many children would have never died due to malnourishment related problems.

"There is a great divide between the resources available and those actually acquired, between existing laws and their implementation, and between rights and the tangible services provided," said Y Mariswamy, a Bangalore-based food rights activist.

Moreover, a closer look at anganwadis revealed that nutrition provided under ICDS leaves much to be desired. Anganwadi teachers admit that the food is mostly unpalatable and inadequate.

Existence of large-scale corruption in supplying food to anganwadis is also a well-known fact.


As part of recommendations, Save the Children suggests that countries revising or drafting nutrition plans should include national and sub-national targets for improving nutrition and reducing stunting.

"Food security is a must for families if we have to ensure proper care of children. The way forward is to work towards building the family as a unit of development rather than looking at issues in isolation," says Nina Nayak, chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, who has chaired public hearings on malnutrition in Raichur.

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