People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 03

January 15, 2012



Hunger, Malnutrition Stalk the Land, Belie PM’s Claims


RELEASING a report on hunger and malnutrition – HUNGaMA – conducted by some NGOs and corporates, the prime minister bemoaned that “the problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame.” Indeed, it is a national shame. The prime minister, however, as can only be expected, remained silent over the bombastic claims made by his government concerning India having achieved the status of an `emerging economy’ and the euphoria over the so-called great success of 20 years of economic reforms ushered by him. These, the country was told, would automatically lead to the improved livelihood status of our people.


However, the report that he released showed that 42 per cent of our children under 5 are underweight and 59 per cent are stunted (too short for their age). This survey was conducted across 112 rural districts in 2011, covering nearly 20 per cent of Indian children. A hundred of these districts were selected from the bottom of a child development district index developed for the UNICEF in 2009. 


Though the prime minister spoke in terms of revealing some startling news to the country, these findings are nothing new.  Government agencies, whose coverage is much wider than the current one, have already established that these neo-liberal economic reforms ushered in by the then finance minister Manmohan Singh, two decades ago, have only succeeded in creating two Indias, with the economic differential between them widening sharply. 


Let us look at some of reports by official government agencies. 


Notwithstanding all the disputes over the statistics of poverty, the recently released Human Development Report of the Planning Commission shows that nearly 310 million of our people live under the officially defined poverty line. Since 1973-74, the number below this line has come down by a mere 19 million. Leaving aside the woefully inadequate measure of poverty, the depressing situation is highlighted by the fact that the overall per capita intake of calories and pulses (protein) has fallen by 8 per cent between 1983 and 2005 in rural areas and 3.3 per cent in urban areas. The alarming situation of hunger can be gauged by the fact that there is no state in the country which has an hunger index of less than 10.


Half of India’s children under the age of three are malnourished, which is worse than in the Sub-Saharan Africa. Half of the children are not fully immunised and, thus, perish due to diseases that are fully and completely preventable. As far as health for the people is concerned, our total expenditure (both public and private) is less than in the whole of Africa as the percentage of the GDP. Even after 64 years of independence, our sanitation conditions are woeful, almost 50 per cent of households do not have toilets.


The National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3), conducted after a gap of six years, has shown a worrisome decline  compared to the findings of NFHS-2. The percentage of children aged between 6 to 35 months suffering from anaemia rose from 74.2 to 79.2 per cent.  For married women in the age group of 15 to 49, this rose from 51.8 to 56.2. For pregnant women in the same age group, the incidence of anaemia rose from 49.7 per cent to 57.9 per cent. 


According to the National Family Health Survey-3, 38.4 per cent of children under age 3 are stunted, that is, they are too short for their age, and 46 per cent are underweight, that is, they are too thin for their age. 79.2 per cent of such children are anaemic. This is the condition of our mothers and children. 


All reports confirm the fact that the health of our children is directly related with the livelihood status of our families. Despite all the hype of a high growth rate trajectory, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has estimated that unemployment rate rose exponentially in 2009-10 to 9.4 per cent from 2.8 per cent in 2007. Even among the employed, only 16 per cent have a regular salary. 43 per cent are so-called self-employed and 39 per cent are casual labour. 


Clinging on to a highly disputed finding of this HUNGaMA report that child underweight has decreased from 53 to 42 per cent between 2004 and 2011, the prime minister says: “This 20 per cent decline in malnourishment in the last seven years is better than the rate of decline reported in NFHS-3.” He, however, went on to add: “What concerns me and what must concern all enlightened citizens, is that 42 per cent of our children are still underweight.  This is an unacceptably high occurrence.” 


Now, ironically, the prime minister heads the National Council on India’s Nutrition Challenges. Amongst the various measures outlined to tackle this malaise by the government has been the universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), not at its own volition, but at the direction of the Supreme Court. Despite the apex court’s direction, under the stewardship of the prime minister, over one-third of the posts of ICDS supervisors continue to remain vacant across the country. Crucial to the ICDS programme are the Anganwadi centres. Over 1,10,000 Anganwadi centres, from amongst the estimated 14 lakhs, continue to remain unoperationalised. The conditions of most of the Anganwadi centres are pathetic. Many (over 90 per cent in Bihar) do not have their own buildings and function in open spaces. More than half do not have any toilet or drinking water facilities. With this government’s overriding mantra of public private partnership (PPP), food supplies to these centres have been privatised. This has resulted in very bad quality of food supply, irregularity and unverified quantities. 


Despite the repeated public protests and discussions in parliament, the condition of the Anganwadi workers remain woefully bad.  Their working conditions are subhuman, with the workers drawing Rs 1500 a month and helpers Rs 750. Such are the pathetic condition of our people who are being invested with the responsibilities to fight malnutrition, and rear and nurture our children, the future of our country. 


Yet the government continues to neglect  this sector and has not even allocated the required financial resources for universalisation of the ICDS in the country. India spends less than one per cent of our GDP on public health, a pathetic figure. In fact, the 2G spectrum scam alone accounts for more than eight times the meagre Rs 22,300 crore health budget.


If the prime minister is really serious about changing this dismal future of India, then steps must be taken to universalise the primary health care for all. This requires that at least 3 per cent of our GDP must be spent on health care. Much more than these amounts is, however, currently being foregone from being legitimately collected as tax revenue by this government. This came to a staggering Rs 14,28,028 crore during the last three years. Of this, Rs 3,63,875 crore have been concessions to the corporates and the rich. 


Therefore, unless this trajectory of neo-liberal ‘reforms’ which enrich the rich and impoverish the poor is reversed, no substantial dent can be made in improving the health of our people and, hence, of our country. This current trajectory of widening the hiatus between the two Indias needs to be abandoned and the monies given as concessions to the rich must, instead, be used through public investments for building our much-needed infrastructure and generating large-scale employment. This is the only way to improve the livelihood status of our people and, therefore, their health, for creating a better India.


(January 11, 2012)