Thursday, March 01, 2007

Indian children suffer more malnutrition than in Ethiopia

India has higher rates of malnourished children than sub-Saharan Africa, despite having the money to tackle the problem, according to a survey that raises grave questions about the country's economic rise.

Almost 46 per cent of Indian children under the age of 3 suffer from malnutrition, according to the survey by the Indian Health Ministry in conjunction with Unicef, the United Nations children's agency. That compares with about 35 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and only 8 per cent in China, whose economic growth India strives to emulate. It also represents only a slight decrease since the last National Family Health Survey in India seven years ago showed that 47 per cent of its children were mal-nourished.

The results provide a shocking illustration of how India's recent economic gains, while enriching the social elite and middle classes, have failed to benefit almost half of its 1.1 billion people.

India's economy has grown by more than 8 per cent annually since 2003 and hit $4 trillion (based on purchasing power parity) by the end of last year — more than double that of the whole of Africa. The country now has the sort of budget, foreign exchange reserves, transport infrastructure, human resources and stable political environment that are the envy of most sub-Saharan countries.

Yet its child malnourishment levels are worse than Ethiopia's and on a par with those of Eritrea and Burkina Faso.

Werner Schultink, chief of child development and nutrition for Unicef in India, said that the country's failure to address malnourishment and other health problems compromised the world's ability to reach the millennium development goals of halving global poverty and hunger by 2015. It also threatened to wipe out the "demographic dividend" of having a relatively young population by creating a generation of underdeveloped and, in some cases, mentally retarded workers, he said.

The survey found that anaemia levels had risen compared with those of seven years ago, with about 56 per cent of women and 79 per cent of children below the age of 3 suffering from the disorder. It showed only negligible progress in child immunisation levels, at 44 per cent compared with 42 per cent. In Gujarat, one of India's richest and most developed states, the proportion of underweight children had risen to 47 per cent from 45 per cent.

The problem, according to Dr Schultink and other experts, is not that India lacks the money to tackle these problems. They pointed out that child malnourishment levels in India were above 70 per cent in the 1970s and that Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, had called recently for urgent action to address the problem. His Government needed to spend far more than the current 1 per cent of GDP allocated to healthcare, they said.

It also needed to raise awareness about health issues among poor women and needed to focus more on children under three rather than the school-age children currently covered in a state scheme to provide 120 million hot, nutritious and free meals on every school day.

"The survey confirms that India has done little for its children," said Shiv Kumar, a development economist and government adviser, who described the survey as "a matter of national priority and shame".


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