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October 31, 2013

Fallen through the cracks: Malnourished children in Growing Gujarat



[This is an AHRC article.] 
The fact that every third child of Gujarat is malnourished comes as no revelation. It cannot be for a state whose Chief Minister Narendra Modi, now Prime Ministerial Candidate of the main opposition party in the country, had infamously blamed the growing malnutrition in his state on ‘beauty conscious girls’ trying to maintain slim figures. Here is what he told to Wall Street Jornal. "Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian state. And secondly, Gujarat is also a middle-class state. The middle-class is more beauty conscious than health conscious - that is a challenge. If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they'll have a fight. She'll tell her mother, 'I won't drink milk. I'll get fat'." The irony that the statement, citing vegetarianism as the other major factor responsible for increasing malnutrition in the state, referred to girls under 5 years of age was not lost on many.

It cannot be, alas, for a nation where hunger keeps returning to haunt the public discourse. India is a country after all, whose Prime Minister had to publicly concede that more than 42 per cent of country’s children being malnourished is a ‘national shame’. It is just that it is not merely a shame. It is nothing less than a scandal as betrayed by the acceptance speech of President Pranab Mukherjee meekly accepting that there is no bigger humiliation than hunger.
Neither do the cacophonous reactions to this sordid saga of malnutrition exposed by the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India reveal anything new. Almost all of them came along expected political lines defined more by the political locations than hard facts. They are bound to be in these highly politically charged environments prevailing in a poll-bound India. Judging by the highly polarizing persona of the Chief Minister of Gujarat, the reactions sounded a bit stifled in fact.
The message of the report is loud and clear that the government of Gujarat has acted at least as badly as any other provincial government if not worse. Therein lays the singular biggest failure of Mr Modi. Addressing the serious problem of malnutrition among children would have added sheen to his claims in a country that is home to hunger. Think of a Gujarat with no, or at least negligible, levels of malnutrition in a country with half of its children wasted. That would have made the Gujarat model of development the decisive answer to what he keeps referring to as inefficient governance by the Congress led United Progressive Alliance. But then, putting words to practice is certainly not that easy.
Had the Government of Gujarat gone on an overdrive to plug the gap instead of going in a denial mode, it could have saved itself from the embarrassment. Though almost all provincial governments faced with pressing socioeconomic problems take recourse to the same route, the case of Gujarat must have been a different one. The reason behind this is simple. Gujarat, led by Mr. Modi, has been positing it as hotbed of growth and development in an otherwise impoverished India lagging behind. Mr. Modi himself has been trying to hard sell the so- called Gujarat model of development as the panacea for all ills plaguing the country. The idea has been a main poll plank of his party, main opposition party in centre.
Unfortunately for Mr. Modi, the CAG report exposing such high levels of malnutrition in the state has called the bluff. It has also forced the need for an explanation, hopefully not as absurd as offered to the Wall Street Journal. To add to the pain, the government of Gujarat does not have the option of taking recourse to its routine escape route; of blaming everything to be a conspiracy in order to malign the chief minister. It cannot do so as it was not merely aware of the situation but also has admitted it time and again. For an example, Vasuben Trivedi, Women and Child Development Minister of Gujarat, has admitted in the state assembly that at least 6.13 lakh children were malnourished or severally malnourished in just 14 districts of the state. The figures would have been much higher if the data for remaining 12 districts was available.
Ironically, Ahemdabad, the state capital, topped the chart with more than 85,000 children identified as malnourished or extremely malnourished. Out of these, she admitted as reported by reputed English Daily ‘The Hindu’, 54,975 malnourished and 3,860 extremely malnourished children lived in Ahmedabad city alone. Can anyone expect the situation to be better in deep interiors of the state if the capital is faring this badly? The data, from the state government itself, shows that the situation is equally bad almost across the state.
The government, as the CAG report brings out, has not done much to arrest the situation. It has failed in even reaching around 28 percent, or more than one fourth, of the eligible beneficiaries under the Supplementary Nutrition (SN) programme under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). In numbers, that was 63.37 lakh deserving beneficiaries being squarely left out of total 223.16 lakh. Similar was the shortfall in providing nutrition days annually, a whopping 96 out of targeted 300, or 32 percent. Ironically for a state whose Chief Minister could blame 5-year-old girls to be ‘beauty conscious’ and thus being responsible for their own under nutrition, 27 to 48 percent shortfall in the implementation of nutrition programme for adolescent girls sounds ominous.
The report found the state wanting in almost all other aspects. Take for example, the fact that despite the government claims of having provided supplementary nutrition to the targeted children between 2007 and 2012, its own monthly progress report put the number of underweight children at an staggering high 33 per cent as of March 2012. This was bound to happen in a state where only 52,137 anganwadi centres were sanctioned as against the 75,480 needed. And if this more than 30 percent Shortfall in anganwadis, the central node in the fight against malnutrition in children under-6, was not enough, a further 1912 of them were non functional. That is letting almost 2000 hamlets, or about 40000 families fall through the cracks.
Let’s be clear on one thing though. Unlike many of the problems of Gujarat, rabid fundamentalism and state supported communal hatred being the most important of them, malnutrition is not a problem of Gujarat alone. It is, as I have said earlier, not unique to Gujarat. Name a state, any state with an exception of Kerala, and one would find that they have all performed at least equally bad if not worse than Gujarat. Clearly, whatever pushes so many of our children into starvation is not limited to Gujarat.
The crisis of hunger is a crisis of the growth model that India has relentlessly pursued irrespective of the regime. Be it the current incumbent Indian National Congress led United Progressive Alliance or its predecessor Bhartiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance, both have ardently pursued same policies dictated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that have been found to be detrimental to the interests of the poor and pauperized across the world.
None of this, of course, would stop Mr Modi’s detractors from rubbishing his ‘Gujarat Model’ of growth. None of this, however, would give the hungry citizenry any hopes till they dispense with this inhuman model that privileges economic growth over human life and dignity.

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