The government has a secret document stashed away in some ministry, that shows a remarkable fall in the levels of malnutrition in the country. A survey was conducted by the Indian government and UNICEF to identify the level of malnutrition and gather more relevant data – as the last time India published a comprehensive, state-wise survey was back in 2007. The report was ready in October 2014, however, the government is yet to publish it.
Why would the government delay the release of this information, especially after carrying out such an extensive survey. Almost 100,000 children were measured and weighed and more than 200,000 people were interviewed across the 29 states.
One possible reason for the delay, is the pride of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was CM of Gujarat at the time the survey was being conducted. The data indicates that Gujarat, which is a relatively prosperous state, has performed worse than many poorer states.
Even though the survey (Rapid Survey on Children – RSOC) does show some progress in the field of nutrition, there is much work to be done. Judged by measures such as the prevalence of “stunting” ( when children are unusually short for their age) and “wasting” (when they weigh too little for their height), India is vastly hungrier than Africa.
A decade ago 42.5 per cent of all children under five were underweight, now the reported rate is just under 30 per cent. This decline coincides with rapid economic growth, rising household incomes and more spending on welfare schemes such as mid-day-meal programme.
Some of the promising states are: Madhya Pradesh in central India, which cut the proportion of its children who go hungry from 60 per cent to 36 per cent; Bihar in the north, from 56 per cent to 37 per cent.
Maharashtra has been termed a “good example” by Victor Aguayo, Unicef’s nutrition adviser for South Asia. The proportion of children there who are underweight fell from 37 per cent to 25 per cent. A decade ago Maharashtra’s figures were as woeful as Gujarat’s are now, however, Maharashtra chose to take action. Sujata Saunik, the head of the state’s health department, says, they used the data from the previous survey to devise a programme to help the state. It was a great success, stunting has been cut by almost 41 per cent and the number of underweight babies is down by 24 per cent.
Back to why the government hasn’t released the survey. RSOC shows that Gujarat has performed worse than the national average, and this comes as a blow to the PM as he touted his home state as an example of development, and one he plans to emulate as India’s leader.
The RSOC shows that the proportion of hungry children in the state fell from 44.6 per cent to 33.5 per cent, but that remains worse than the national average. It is also below the national average for stunting (42 per cent), severe stunting (18.5 per cent) and wasting (18.75 per cent). Also nearly two-fifths of its population defecate outdoors.
The results of the survey might lead some people to question whether – in terms of health – it is really a model the nation should seek to emulate. It shows that despite impressive economic growth, the state continues to have some of the worst health outcomes in India.
When PM Modi was in power in Gujarat he was asked about child malnutrition, the Economist re-printed his quote to the Wall Street Journal: ” The middle class is more beauty conscious than health conscious…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.”
There were some who found this answer to be sufficient, however, others like economist and Nobel Laureate Amartaya Sen, believes PM Modi does not provide strong leadership on healthcare. Rising incomes are not enough for India to develop as a nation, the country has to focus on factors such as healthcare, nutrition, education and women’s empowerment.
Initially the Indian government spent only 1% of its GDP on healthcare – one of the lowest figures in the world. Now that Modi has come to power, he has cut that figure back even more.