April 02, 2010

60 years later, a beginning

By some estimates, over half of India's children -- something approaching 80 million kids -- are malnourished, the highest number in the world. While reading about this several years ago for something I had to put together, I found a UNICEF report from the early '90s, The Progress of Nations, that did some eye-opening for me.

It said that the routine explanations for this scale of malnourishment -- poverty, low per capita food production, inequality in incomes, even vegetarian diets -- don't hold up to scrutiny. For Africa shows up significantly worse than India on some of these counts, but only about a third of its children are malnourished. Even in Mauritania, the worst African country in this respect, only 48% of the children are malnourished.

So what is the reason for malnutrition on the scale we see in India?

There are several the UNICEF report cited. They add up to what it called "the quality of child care." A mother may love her children a great deal, but "it is all but impossible for her to provide high quality child care if she herself is poor and oppressed, illiterate and uninformed." It is vital that Indian women be given greater freedoms, rights and opportunities -- and access to education. In fact, the report said the education of girls is the "key of keys" to fighting widespread malnutrition. This alone will make them more likely to exercise their rights, take a share in decision-making inside and outside the home and raise healthy children who will themselves attend school.

Others have come to similar conclusions. In World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins point out that overpopulation, lack of food and land to grow it on are not the real causes of hunger. Instead, it is a "scarcity of democracy". Amartya Sen has often and famously written that famines rarely happen in democratic countries. If a country has no elections and no free press, its rulers are not accountable and need not face the political consequences of failing to prevent a famine. In Hunger and Public Action, Sen and Jean Dreze argue that to eliminate malnourishment, health care and basic education must be promoted. Of course, educated people buy food and medicines in a more informed way. What's more, educated people demand services and their rights, whether health care, electricity or adequate resettlement measures if they are displaced by development projects. And the educated are better able to hold rulers politically accountable for their failures.

None of all this is new, I know. Nor is it glamorous front-page headlines involving six-hitting IPL superstars. Besides, it's been said before and will be said again.

Yet this is something of a context in which to understand what was indeed news yesterday. Sixty years ago, our Constitution put in place a Directive Principle of State Policy that said India should "endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for children up to fourteen years of age."

Half a century on, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act has become law.

About time, but never mind. And if we now start making up for sixty wasted years, may this country finally fulfil its true human potential.


Suresh said...

To the list of works you've cited, you could add the late Myron Weiner's deeply felt 1991 book The Child and the State in India. The book is not about hunger as such but about something related, child labour. It also makes the point that India's failure to eliminate child labour cannot be attributed to poverty because poorer countries had managed to educate their children.

And that reminds me -- we have passed a law banning child labour but after that, forgotten about it. (At least, the press coverage.) I sincerely hope that the law making education compulsory does not go the way of other similar laws -- against untouchability, against child labour, against dowry to name a few.

Kant said...

Truly we all need to keep highlighting these problems over and over again. We do not have responsible media and neither responsible educated people. Slowly and surely the change must come through persistent efforts by all of us.
Thanks for writing on this.


Anonymous said...

it is my impression that people tend to underfeed their children without realizing it. they aren't sufficiently aware of the ill effects of malnutrition. i don't have any evidence for it, though.