Archive | December, 2009

Death by drought and more

26 Dec


In drought-hit Bundelkhand, corruption is not just a tired cliché from a bad Bollywood movie, it is a life-threatening human rights emergency.

Corruption exacerbates poverty in Bundelkhand…the money earmarked for NREGA is being cleverly pocketed by village council leaders and unscrupulous officials.

Sesame shoots in the fields of Bundelkhand make it seem there is no drought. But the crops are stunted and useless.

Bundelkhand, which comprises six districts in Madhya Pradesh and seven in Uttar Pradesh, has had a drought for seven years except the last one. At the peak of farming season this year, rains were half of normal.

In between Mahoba and Chhattarpur districts lies Khajuraho airport. Swanky roads and five-star hotels dot the tourist destination and belie the silent human catastrophe unfolding just kilometres away. Drought may have ravaged the fields but State apathy and the brazenly corrupt officials are more brutal.

Multitudes throng us in every village we visited. Willing to clutch at straws in their desperation, their voices would go: “Have you written about my mentally challenged son?”… “I applied for old age pension long back.” … “I have been anxiously waiting for my widow pension card.” “They haven’t paid my NREGA wages.”

Inaccessible healthcare

Eighty-five-year old Motiya, slumped on a cot, gives out a heartrending cry as we step into his dingy hut. His wife sleeps nearby. Both have had fever for four days. Motiya has bed sores and can barely move. Villagers say that often worms crawl out of his mouth. “The other day my father defecated in bed. I cleaned him up. Where is the money to get them medicines?” asks Motiya’s son Chaniya, a daily-wage labourer in Seelaun village of Chhattarpur. The government hospital is 25 km away, and rarely stocks medicines.

Cattle, abandoned on highways, and the old are among the causalities of this drought as families flee a disaster. In village after village, elders have in vain applied for pension that provides Rs. 275 a month. Often the local officials demand bribes from penniless petitioners. Also, families who own more than five acres of land are not classified as being Below Poverty Line or BPL. It does not bother the officials that the drought has rendered income from land inadequate.

Dalit woman Jhharokhan Paswan in Chandauli village of Mahoba could not complete the last rites of her husband who died of grinding hunger last year. “My blind husband died a slow painful death,” she says. A tattered sari covers her old body. Had the grain bank supported by ActionAid partner organisation Kriti Shodh Sansthan not given her 40 kg of wheat, she would have had to go on begging. Last month, she threw a dried-up chapatti on the district collector’s table. He promised to mark her as BPL. And she is still waiting.

Against the wall

Despair is all too common in Bundelkhand. Rani’s husband Priti Pal Singh jumped into a well in Chandauli three months back. Their three acre land had stopped yielding, and he couldn’t repay a loan of Rs. 80,000 he took for his daughter’s wedding. Rani has asked for a job but the sarpanch argues over how an upper caste woman can go to work! Though only slightly better-off, villagers have been generous enough to offer food. “I dread to think what will happen if they stop. Sometimes I too feel like jumping into the well,” her voice falters. Nights spent listening to her children crying out of hunger are still fresh in her memory.

Corruption exacerbates poverty in Bundelkhand. The running of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or NREGA is an example. The scheme that promises 100 days’ work could have been a lifeline for rural families. But the money earmarked for it is being cleverly pocketed by formidable village council leaders and unscrupulous officials.

NREGA wages have not been paid to 200 people of Akauna village in Chhattarpur for eight months. Officials have yet to answer queries posed in March under the Right to Information Act on how many villagers got jobs in Akauna. Eighty villagers in Seelaun are yet to get remuneration. In village after village, inhabitants underline that those who are close to the panchayat leaders get NREGA work or a BPL tag.

Village council heads often refuse to accept written applications. Hence, little evidence remains of how many rural folk sought jobs and how many got them. The Afforestation Mega Campaign in Uttar Pradesh — a scheme worth Rs. 1582 million — was launched last year to boost the NREGA in drought-prone Bundelkhand. Mahoba was supposed to get 10 million saplings. “Only 40 per cent of the saplings have been sown, the rest are on paper,” reveals Manoj Kumar of Kriti Shodh Samsthan.

Six rivers have gone waterless in Mahoba. So, without food, water and jobs, people have no choice but to migrate to metropolises. Chhattarpur Collector E. Ramesh Kumar was quoted in The Hindudated September 5, “This is not distress migration.” He attributed the movement to seeking better opportunities.

“In Delhi we live in plastic huts next to roads. At times we fall from high rises doing construction work. Does that sound like a better opportunity?” asks Ramlal.

Ramesh Kumar, in a telephonic exchange, says he is only a few months old in Chhattarpur. And that “some shortcomings” perhaps do affect some villages.

Great divide

The distance between Bundelkhand’s poor and their political leaders is huge. Asked whether elected representatives have visited them ever since the polls, there are laughs all around in Chandauli.

Even as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said the country has enough food stored to prevent high inflation, hunger is widespread in Bundelkhand.

Those who are entitled to subsidised grains in Seelaun assert the full quota of 35 kg hardly ever reaches them. Numerous people across villages wryly confess that their meals consist of chapattis and salt. Bangle seller Ramesh Lakhera says, “I remember the taste of dal.” Lakhera’s earnings have plunged, and lentils cost a steep Rs. 90 per kg.

“Nearly 65 per cent of families are malnourished in 500 villages of Mahoba,” says Manoj Kumar.

In Banda district, 48 per cent of the children aged three or less are underfed. Government records reveal there are 130,000 malnourished children in Chhattarpur and 600 in Tikamgarh district. However grim these statistics may be, there’s more.

“We have discovered 40 undernourished children in Kandva village of Tikamgarh who have not been mentioned in anganwadi registers. Ten are severely malnourished,” says Narendra Sharma of ActionAid. Government-supported anganwadis supposedly provide nutritious food to toddlers and pregnant women.

In Mahoba, 165 anganwadis don’t function at all.

Denied rights

Rural families in Bundelkhand are routinely denied their right to health and life as they are often unable to access lifesaving treatment. The health system is seldom held to account. “Lately we rushed a young man bitten by a snake to the nearest health centre. They sent us away. He died on the way to a bigger hospital,” says Lallu Khan of Mahoba. Last year five children died of diarrhoea in Seelaun. Ramkali Ahirwar from Pratappura says bitterly, “We go to doctors when we are about to collapse. We die at home everyday.”

Asked whether the Uttar Pradesh government headed by a Dalit leader has made any difference to their lives, Phulia Rani, a Dalit woman in Chandauli, says “No.”

Meanwhile, the state website proudly announces “the historic decisions including increase in the budget for the welfare of Dalits and tribals by 41per cent”.

The author is a development journalist based in New Delhi and Hyderabad.


Copenhagen, tsunami and hunger

26 Dec

M.S. Swaminathan IN THE HINDU

India’s food and water security systems will be the worst victims of a rise in mean temperature. Building our defences against potential climate change activated calamities through mainstreaming climate resilience in all developmental programmes should be the priority task in the New Year.

The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities is the core of the many climate agreements arrived at so far, including the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Bali Plan of Action (2007). The differentiated responsibilities aim to meet the special needs of developing countries for accelerated and equitable economic development. Both at L’Aquilla and Copenhagen, the industrialised countries proposed limiting the rise in mean temperature to 2 degrees C above norm al. Even this seems to be unattainable in the context of the present rate of emission of greenhouse gases (GHG). Hence, the principle of common but differentiated impact of 2 degrees change in mean temperature is essential for prioritising climate victims. For example, small islands like Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, the Maldives, Lakshadweep and the Andaman and Nicobar, as well as Sunderbans in West Bengal, Kuttanad in Kerala and many locations along the coast will face the prospect of submergence. Floods will become more serious and frequent in the Indo-Gangetic plains. Drought induced food and water scarcity will become more acute. South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the small islands will be the worst victims. In contrast, countries in the northern latitudes will benefit due to longer growing seasons and higher yields.

Addressing the World Climate Conference in Geneva in 1989 on the theme, “Climate Change and Agriculture,” I pointed out the serious implications of a rise of 1 to 2 degree C in mean temperature on crop productivity in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. An Expert Team constituted by FAO, in its report submitted in September 2009, also concluded that for each 1 degree C rise in mean temperature, wheat yield losses in India are likely to be around 6 million tonnes per year, or around $1.5 billion at current prices. There will be similar losses in other crops and our impoverished farmers could lose the equivalent of over $20 billion in income each year. Rural women will suffer more since they look after animals, fodder, feed and water.

We are now in the midst of a steep rise in the prices of essential food items like pulses. 2009 has been characterised by both extensive drought and severe floods. The gap between demand and supply is high in pulses, oilseeds, sugar and several vegetable crops including onion and potato. The absence of a farmer-centric market system aggravates both food inflation and rural poverty. FAO estimates that a primary cause for the increase in the number of hungry persons, now exceeding over a billion, is the high cost of basic staples. India unfortunately has the unenviable reputation of being the home to the largest number of undernourished children, women and men in the world. The task of ensuring food security will be quite formidable in an era of increasing climate risks and diminishing farm productivity.

China, which was reluctant in Copenhagen to join other developing countries in efforts to restrict the rise in mean temperature to 1 to 1.5 degrees C, has already built strong defences against the adverse impact of climate change. During this year, China produced over 500 million tonnes of foodgrains in a cultivated area similar to that of India. Chinese farmland is, however, mostly irrigated unlike in India where 60 per cent of the area still remains rain-fed. Food and drinking water are the first among our hierarchical needs. Hence while assessing the common and differentiated impact of a 2 degree rise in temperature, priority should go to agriculture and rural livelihoods. What are the steps we should take in the fields of both mitigation and adaptation?

The largest opportunity in mitigation lies in increasing soil carbon sequestration and for building up soil carbon banks. Increase in the soil carbon pool in the root zone by 1 ton C/ha/yr will help to increase food production substantially, since one of the major deficiencies in soil health is low soil organic matter content. There should be a movement for planting a billion “fertilizer trees” which can simultaneously sequester carbon and enhance soil nutrient status. We can also contribute to the reduction in methane emission in the atmosphere from animal husbandry by spreading biogas plants. A biogas plant and a pond on every farm will make a substantial contribution to both reducing GHG emission and ensuring energy and water security. Similarly neem-coated urea will help to reduce ammonia volatilisation and thereby the release of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. We can classify our crops into those which are climate resilient and those which are climate sensitive. For example, wheat is a climate sensitive crop, while rice shows a wide range of adaptation in terms of growing conditions. We will have problems with reference to crops like potato since a higher temperature will render raising disease-free seed potatoes in the plains of northwest India difficult. We will have to shift to cultivating potato from true sexual seed. The relative importance of different diseases and pests will get altered. The wheat crop may suffer more from stem rust which normally remains important only in Peninsular India. A search for new genes conferring climate resilience is therefore urgent.

Anticipatory analysis and action hold the key to climate risk management. The major components of an Action Plan for achieving a Climate Resilient National Food Security System will be the following:

— Establish in each of the 127 agro-climatic sub-zones, identified by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research based on cropping systems and weather patterns of the country, a Climate Risk Management Research and Extension Centre.

— Organise a Content Consortium for each centre consisting of experts in different fields to provide guidance on alternative cropping patterns, contingency plans and compensatory production programmes, when the area witnesses natural calamities like drought, flood, higher temperature and in case of coastal areas, a rise in sea level.

— Establish with the help of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) a Village Resource Centre (VRC) with satellite connection at each of the 127 locations.

— Establish with the help of the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the India Meteorological Department an Agro-Meteorological Station at each Research and Extension Centre to initiate a “Weather Information for All” programme.

— Organise Seed and Grain Banks based on Computer Simulation Models of different weather probabilities and their impact on the normal crops and crop seasons of the area.

— Develop Drought and Flood Codes indicating the anticipatory steps necessary to adapt to the impact of global warming.

— Strengthen coastal defences against a rise in the sea level as well as the more frequent occurrence of storms and tsunamis through the establishment of bio-shields of mangroves and non-mangrove species. Also, develop seawater farming and below sea-level farming techniques. Establish major research centres for sea-water farming and below sea-level farming. Kuttanad will be a suitable place for the Below Sea-Level Farming Research and Extension Centre. A major centre should also be established in the Sunderbans area.

— Train one woman and one man of every panchayat to become Climate Risk Managers. They should become well-versed in the art and science of Climate Risk Management and help to blend traditional wisdom with modern science. The Climate Risk Managers should be supported with an Internet-connected Village Knowledge Centre.

Today (December 26, 2009) marks the fifth anniversary of tsunami. The tsunami of 2004 was a wake-up call alerting us to the consequences of a sudden rise in the sea level. The “Copenhagen Inaction” will lead to more severe coastal storms, tsunamis and sea level rises. A Climate Literacy Movement as well as anticipatory action to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of all those living in coastal areas and islands will have to be initiated. Integrated coastal zone management procedures involving concurrent attention to both the landward and seaward site of the ocean and to coastal forestry and agro-forestry as well as capture and culture fisheries are urgently needed.

With the help of Tata Trusts, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation is dedicating today to fisher and coastal communities a “Fish for All Research and Training Centre” at Kaverpoomipattinam (Poompuhar) for imparting training from fish capture to consumption. A college for coastal communities is also being established with the help of the Indira Gandhi National Open University. Artesenal fishermen going to the sea in small boats are being provided with cellphones which can give them information on wave heights and the location of shoals. This helps not only to save time but also allay fears concerning a sudden rise in the sea level. In 2010, India will complete 60 years of planned development. Hereafter, climate resilience must be mainstreamed in all development programmes. Let not the Copenhagen Inaction add to the number affected by deprivation and malnutrition.

(The writer is Chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation and Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)

They barter away education for money from cotton fields

20 Dec

Meena Menon IN  THE HINDU

These children are major hindrance to child rights in major cotton growing States

Save the Children and IKEA Social Initiative are trying to stamp out child labour in the cotton production and supply chain

In Maharashtra, the project covers 986 villages in Amravati, Akola, Buldhana, Washim districts

AMRAVATI: From Gunji village, 12-year-old Reshma Itiwale walks for more than an hour to reach her workplace. For the past two months, she has been plucking cotton for Rs. 30 a day, along with her mother Nalini. Her father Vishwas and brothers Amol, 4, and Akshay,11, are daily wagers elsewhere.

The family owns two acres where they can plant cotton and tur dal in the monsoon. “In the summer and the rest of the time, we have to work,” says Nalini Itiwale. At Gunji in Dhamangaon taluka of Amravati district, with a population of 800, 25 per cent are landless. Unmindful of the searing afternoon sun, Nalini and Reshma are plucking cotton and throwing the bolls into a makeshift backpack made of cloth.

Reshma has studied up to Std. V. After Std. IV, she had to walk to Ashok Nagar, three km away, for secondary school. Soon she stopped going. Along with her is Kavita who says she is 18. She dropped out last year after studying up to 12th standard. Kavita comes from Phulam, and her family owns four acres. Nalini who has never been to school says: “We are poor people, if our children don’t work we cannot sustain the family.”

At Gavhani Pani, 12-year-old Gajanan, Std. V dropout, goes to pluck cotton for Rs. 40 a day. Since his father died five years ago, his mother Chaya struggles to make ends met. The family is landless and don’t even own a BPL card. “I want my son to study but I have no choice,” says Chaya. Her daughter Yogita is in Std. IV. It is because of children like Reshma and Gajanan that Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation, and IKEA Social Initiative have identified child labourers, especially those slogging it out on cotton fields, as a major hindrance to child rights in India’s major cotton growing States, including Maharashtra and Gujarat.

By promoting child rights, the partnership intends rooting out child labour from the cotton production and supply chain and other sectors in these States. The first phase of the four-year project has been launched in Gujarat and Maharashtra. In Maharashtra, the project covers 986 villages in four major cotton growing districts (Amravati, Akola, Buldhana, Washim) in the drought-prone Vidarbha region, targeting 287,179 children in the age group of 3-18, including 122,653 working children.

At Giroli, also in Dhamangaon taluka, Gayabai Meshram, in her 70s, peers dejectedly at the world through her glasses. After her son and daughter-in-law died some years ago, her main worry is her three grandchildren, two of whom have returned from a relative’s place to live with her. Ashish dropped out in Std. XI and his sister Neha studied till Std. IX. “I left school five years ago and came to live with my grandmother. I mostly work in the fields, do weeding or plucking for Rs. 50 a day,” he says. If Neha and her brother don’t earn, they cannot survive. “I have no support now and depend on these two children. I get Rs. 250 in pension but that too is erratic, it comes once in four months. How can I manage?” asks Gayabai.

This is the first year that Chanchal Sonawane who studies in Std. VI has gone to pluck cotton. She is a bright student whose favourite subject is Marathi, and usually comes among the first three in class. However, she barely manages school twice a week. Her mother Tulsa had abandoned Chanchal and her two younger brothers owing to her husband’s alcoholism. It took the efforts of the entire Giroli village to convince her husband Laxmanrao to give up drinking and look after the family. Tulsa has since returned to her home.

Chanchal, with her nimble fingers, manages to pluck 20-40 kg of cotton a day. “When Chanchal goes to work, I stay at home to look after my youngest son who is two,” admits Tulsa. When her mother goes to work, Chanchal stays at home to mind the baby. “My daughter is good in studies, and at work too. It is expensive though to send her to school,” says Tulsa.

The key objectives of the project are to create child-labour free villages, ensure that all primary school children are in school and no child under 14 is engaged in exploitative labour, to set up a functioning Child Protection Committee at the community level, a functioning children’s group at the community and school level and to create awareness of child rights.

Save the Children’s baseline study in the four districts of Maharashtra revealed there are 556,476 children working with 383,849 (69 per cent) in cotton fields. Over 30 per cent of them report physical or sexual abuse at worksites. Many toil for 6-10 hours a day under hot and dusty conditions, exposed to the harmful pesticides.

The data reveals that over 50 per cent of the targeted children began working between 11 and 15 years of age, and a majority of this group unilaterally chose labour owing to economic conditions at home and lack of interest in education. Children lose 60-90 days at school to cotton weeding and picking during the season. One of the main problems is the lack of economic alternatives, and the project is planning to mobilise self-help groups, promote rural employment and train women and adolescents in vocational skills with market-oriented approach.

Voluntary service

18 Dec


Very little is known generally about operational NGOs that work closely with people on a daily basis.

WHILE a good many people in the country know that the Central and State governments have a number of plans and projects to bring about development – not all of them either well-conceived or well administered – they are much less aware of the part played in the overall development process by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). That part includes sensitisation, which usually means advocacy, or “activism” as it is more commonly called, and the actu al carrying out of development projects – providing housing, rural roads, sanitation, schools, health facilities and other services. The World Bank recognises this and divides the NGOs into two categories: those involved in advocacy and those involved in operations.

We are aware of the advocacy groups, the social activists, because at least some of them attract the attention of the media by their actions such as dharnas, rallies, fasts and demonstrations. Their work needs to be recognised as being of considerable importance in two ways. One is by making marginalised and neglected groups such as the tribal people and the poor aware of their rights and entitlements and of the manner in which they are, in far too many cases, exploited by middlemen and minor state functionaries. The other is by bringing instances of injustice and this kind of exploitation to the notice of the authorities using the media.

Legal remedies are now available, chief among them being the public interest litigation (PIL) and the petition that can be filed under the right to information laws (RTI application). Specific legal remedies are also available under a host of laws such as the Minimum Wages Act. More such laws are being enacted with the express purpose of giving legal protection and redress to the deprived and the exploited. Many activist NGOs have come into existence and more come up regularly to assist those who cannot otherwise take recourse to the law.

However, very few know about the second category of NGOs, those that actually deliver services. There is some knowledge about the big ones among them, a number of which are part of international NGOs such as ActionAid, Helpage and the Red Cross. But smaller NGOs, some of which work in just one State, or have small projects in different States, are virtually unknown. I know, for instance, of Urmul and Charkha only because they were founded or mentored by close relatives. The first one is working in Rajasthan and the second in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. I might have known of Urmul because some of its handicrafts are sold at an annual mela in Delhi, but I would not have known of Charkha’s work, which has taken up projects in the States that I have mentioned.

This is not because they do not publicise their work; they regularly bring out information material on their work and send it to the media. It is because the media consider news as something different. Even if they do carry some information on what NGOs are doing, it is about the activist NGOs, not about those in the field of development, the operational NGOs. There are, one has to admit, some stories about the development work some NGOs have done, for example, the work done by NGOs in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu to rehabilitate victims of the tsunami that hit the area in December 2004. There are some stories on the work done by some NGOs in different fields. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, the situation is not likely to change in the near future. Success stories do not sell, hard-boiled journalists will tell you. In part, it is because a single story about, say, a hospital doing excellent work in a remote rural region will not alter the general perception that medical services are very scarce in villages or non-existent in large tracts of the country. And that has to do with the general perception of the relatively affluent, those who read newspapers and journals, listen to radio news bulletins or watch television news channels.

Simply put, they see poverty, lack of health facilities, illiteracy and scarcity of schools in the abstract and as issues to be addressed by the state. This class does not look at issues as something that affects individuals unless those individuals are personally known – servants, workers who build one’s house or even poor relatives. My handling of a servant wanting a higher wage has nothing to do with my genuine concern about the slow progress being made by the state in its efforts to eliminate or lessen poverty.

The operational NGOs have made the transition that we as a class have not yet made. They do not see poverty in the abstract; they deal with poor individuals with names and identities. People who are ill in rural regions or urban slums are not “the sick and needy”; they are, again, individuals, Bibhuti Sarkar of Bhunia village in Birbhum district suffering from a tumour in the stomach, or Shantiammal in Tindivanam in Tamil Nadu who has cervical cancer, or Anees Khan of Seelampuri in Delhi who needs a cataract operation.

They make it their task to get them the help they need, as Babar Ali, a 10-year-old, has made it his business to teach the younger children in his village after he himself comes out of his classes; he runs a regular school.

It is the operational NGOs that actually get close to particular people and see the problem not so much in a global context as in terms of getting Salim Ali to a doctor as quickly as possible. It is in one sense, we might think, limiting, but in another sense it is the real and substantial action that is needed. Sadly, it is precisely for this reason that the efforts of operational NGOs do not get the kind of media attention that they deserve. One Salim Ali cured because of timely help or one Shantiammal taken to a cancer specialist and successfully operated upon does not make for a story. The agitation for a proper hospital in a specific region, on the other hand, does. We know of the deprivation of the tribal people because of the naxalite violence. Do we know any tribal people; do we know their names, their families? It is with the individuals unknown to most that the operational NGOs work.

That is their story, the story of the Urmuls, Charkhas, Prathams and Pradans. It is a story that needs to be told, and if we value the process of building our country, it needs to be told over and over again, not by the state or by the NGOs themselves but by journalists as committed to the eradication of deprivation and poverty as some are to the environment.

Child undernutrition in India is a human rights issue

10 Dec

Karin Hulshof  IN  THE HINDU

Despite a booming economy, nutrition deprivation among India’s children remains widespread.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” So begins the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established 60 years ago and celebrated today around the globe. This year’s theme is non-discrimination. When it comes to nutrition, all of India’s children are not equal. According to India’s third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) of 2005-06, 20 per cent of Indian children under five-years-old are wasted due to acute undernutrition and 48 per cent are stunted due to chronic undernutrition. Seventy per cent of children between six months and 59 months are anaemic. Despite a booming economy, nutrition deprivation among India’s children remains widespread.



In absolute numbers, an average 25 million children are wasted and 61 million are stunted. The state of child undernutrition in India is — first and foremost — a major threat to the survival, growth, and development and of great importance for India as a global player. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has referred to undernutrition as ‘a matter of national shame.’

Children who are undernourished have substantially lower chances of survival than children who are well-nourished. Undernourished children are much more likely to suffer from serious infections and to die from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, and measles. More than a third of all deaths in children aged five years or younger can be attributable to undernutrition. Children who survive undernutrition do not perform as well in school as their well-nourished peers and as adults they are less productive.

Good nutrition early in life is a key input for human capital formation, a fundamental factor for sustainable and equitable economic growth. Widespread undernutrition impedes socio-economic development and poverty reduction. With persistently high levels of child undernutrition, vital opportunities to save millions of lives are being lost, and many more children are not growing to their full potential.

There is a critical window of opportunity to intervene when mothers are pregnant and during children’s first two years of life. After that age, the window closes and the opportunity for the child is lost forever. We know what works — ten proven, high-impact interventions can dramatically reduce undernutrition in young children if delivered nationally:

Timely initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth

Exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life

Timely introduction of complementary foods at six months

Age-appropriate foods for children six months to two years

Hygienic complementary feeding practices

Immunisation and bi-annual Vitamin A supplementation with deworming

Appropriate feeding for children during and after illness

Therapeutic feeding for children with severe acute malnutrition

Adequate nutrition and support for adolescent girls to prevent anemia

Adequate nutrition and support for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers

These 10 essential interventions could halve the proportion of undernourished children over the next 10 years.

A number of emerging economies have encountered nutrition challenges similar to those currently facing India. For example, China reduced child undernutrition by more than half (from 25 per cent to 8 per cent) between 1990 and 2002; Brazil reduced child undernutrition by 60 per cent (from 18 per cent to 7 per cent) from 1975 to 1989; Thailand reduced child undernutrition by half (from 50 per cent to 25 per cent) in less than a decade (1982-1986); and Viet Nam reduced child undernutrition by 40 per cent (from 45 per cent to 27 per cent) between 1990 and 2006.

Four lessons can be learned from these countries’ experiences: 1) Leadership at the highest level to ensure that priority is given to child nutrition outcomes across sectors and states, with large investments in nutrition interventions and successful poverty alleviation strategies. 2) Targeted nutrition interventions to prevent mild and moderate undernutrition and treat severe undernutrition as part of a continuum of care for children, particularly among the most vulnerable children: the youngest, the poorest, and the socially-excluded; 3) Reliance on community-based primary health care to ensure high coverage through community-based frontline workers; 4) Strong supervision, monitoring, evaluation, and knowledge management to provide the evidence base for timely and effective policy, programme and budgetary action.

The universal delivery of this package of ten evidence-based, high impact essential nutrition interventions will lead to an unprecedented reduction in child undernutrition. India has the resources — financial and human — to address, once and for all, the challenge of child undernutrition. The prevention and treatment of child undernutrition in the first two years of life needs to be a national development priority.

India’s leadership is recognised globally and its economy is growing at an enviable rate. That strength and leadership can be channelled to ensure survival of India’s most precious asset — its children — to thrive and survive. The nutrition targets set forth by the government in its Eleventh Five-Year Plan are ambitious, more ambitious than the international commitments set forth in the Millennium Development Goals. In the government’s own words, “it is better to aim high, than to fail low.”

Now is the time to combine the existing technical knowledge with the political will to change the lives of millions to guarantee the human rights, dignity and rights of all of India’s children. Now is the time to combine the existing technical knowledge with the political will to change the lives of millions to guarantee the human rights and dignity of all of India’s children.

This is a ‘make or break’ time to emerge as global leader in the fight against undernutrition… 61 million children are waiting.

(Dr. Karin Hulshof is UNICEF India Representative.)

— Courtesy: U.N. Information Centre for India and Bhutan.

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