Thursday, May 31, 2007

Malnutrition stalks children in MP, govt. remains indifferent

Sachin K Jain

Since children do not account for a vote bank, their needs are often sidelined. How else do you explain the escalating numbers of malnutrition children?

IN THE FIRST WEEK of October 2006, the enquiry committee was constituted by the commissioners of the Supreme Court to investigate hunger and malnutrition deaths. On their visit to the most backward tribal group, SAHERIYA dominated villages of Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh, they found four children in Ranipur village – Bansi, Sonu, Sukhlal and Kiran severely malnourished. The district administration was immediately directed to provide medical facility, proper care and nutrition to these children right on the spot at the village, but after a month it was found that all the four children had succumbed owing to lack of treatment and nutrition. And it is not a coincidence that within a month, MP has come to be known as the most malnourished state.

The question is not only of statistics of what is the exact number of malnourished children and how many are dying everyday but the bitter truth behind the deaths is more important. The fact that in the race for a bright and shining development, we are trampling upon our children is indeed unjustifiable. The truth is bitter for Madhya Pradesh since during a period that the state was getting awards and recognition for progress and development, the National Family Health Survey III highlighted the fact that during the last eight years (1998-2006), the percent of malnourished children had increased by a serious five per cent. Owing to dearth of nutritious food, health facilities and family food insecurity, the percent of malnutrition (underweight) increased from 54 per cent to 60.3 per cent. It’s not the end of the story. It also says that only 14 per cent children under the age of three years breastfed within one hour of birth and 82.6 per cent of children between the age group of 6-35 months (the most critical period of life for mental and physical development) are anemic. On the other hand on the basis of their own data, Government of Madhya Pradesh has been claiming that the ratio of undernourishment has come down to somewhere around 49 per cent but field realities, (like Sheopur) do not support state claims.

In Bal Adhikar Samvad convention on 19th December in New Delhi, Nobel Prize winner and eminent welfare economist Prof. Amartya Sen said “It is now a clearly established reality that even after gaining high growth rate and increasing per capita income, we have failed to protect our children from hunger and diseases. I feel the question of resources is not the biggest one, a lot of money is being spent but the situation is not improving in accordance with the expenditure because our system delivery systems are worst, un-accountable and non-responsive towards the most marginalized, like children.”

And in Sen’s response Vice-Chairman of Planning Commission of India, Montek Singh Ahluwalia acknowledged the facts pointed out by him and said that there is need to change the system and develop the sense of responsibility towards children. He didn’t forget mentioning the ongoing tussle between state and central governments by saying that we can give money but the state governments have to ensure the results.

Now it is a transparent truth in the era of globalization that governments will not pay for children, state will just facilitate the process (controlled by the powerful). That is what happened in Madhya Pradesh, when NFHS-III data came out. Principal Secretary of Women and Child Development, Government of Madhya Pradesh, Prashant Mehta in his statement said, “We don’t agree with the NFHS data, malnutrition has decreased in MP and we will go for a separate and independent study.” It means the state government has questioned the most reliable source of information and technique, because it is done by the central government and the efforts made by the state are genuinely questioned.

For those who think that malnutrition in general has no relation with wider aspects of the society should understand that unless the physical and mental abilities of children are not developed properly, the dream of 8-10 per cent development rate cannot be fulfilled. The saddest part is that most seriously malnutrition hit areas and communities are in MP. On the other hand, malnutrition decreased by ten per cent in Maharashtra, seven per cent in Rajasthan, nine per cent in Chhattisgarh and five percent in Uttar Pradesh.

It is not that malnutrition problem was not serious earlier, but like other aspects of child rights, this will also go neglected because children are neither vote banks nor can they sit in dharna before the state assembly to demand their rights. However, the discrepant development policies have put these children on continuing hunger strike. There was a hope that people’s representatives would take up the matter in democratic forums (Parliament and Assembly) to make policies towards giving rights to children in an honourable manner. However during last five years these houses gave only 0.3 per cent time to these issues and only 77 questions were raised. Not once was any ruckus created in these houses on the issue of malnutrition among children.

It becomes a matter of concern then that when it is being claimed all round that development is surfacing in all spheres, why is the situation of malnutrition becoming graver by the day.

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