Killing the future: Hunger deaths among children

In a small village in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh state, 88 out of 545 children were found severely malnourished, of which 32 died within a span of a week. These children succumbed to a situation due to absence of any medical intervention though the deaths were very much preventable. No wonder, that about 49 percent of world's malnourished children live in India and more than 40 percent of Indian children are underweight whereas 45 percent have stunted growth. The situation is alarming in the country's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which has the highest infant mortality rate (67/1000) in the country.

The Child Relief and You (CRY) with the help of Voice of People (VoP) recently collected evidences, which indicate large-scale occurrence of preventable malnourishment in Uttar Pradesh. The study points out large scale gaps in the government-run programmes like Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), which solely target at nutrition and health of children. The CRY study revealed that only 33 percent Indian children are covered under the ICDS programme.

"With timely investment in terms of resources, staff and planning and proper execution of government welfare schemes, these deaths can be prevented," says Pankaj Mehta who was part of the study. "Uttar Pradesh has a child population of over 29 million, of which 85 percent are suffering from anaemia, about 42 percent are underweight," he said.

The CRY and VoP study conducted in 8 districts of the state established the fact that 54 percent children surveyed are malnourished. The startling fact was that majority of malnourished children (70 percent) belong to scheduled caste (lowest of the low caste) families, which also fall in lowest income group.

"They are not only financially crippled families but also lack access to essential services like clean drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, electricity, health services, education etc. In the study we found that 96 percent of the families with malnourished children do not earn even basic minimum wages," said Yogita Verma, Director, CRY.

An interesting aspect of the study was that of the total malnourished children, 52 percent were boys and 48 percent girls, which defied the myth of gender disparity.

The study identified children suffering from malnutrition and also analysed the socio-economic reasons behind this chronic state. The few facts established by the study are:

- 62 percent of the severely malnourished children in Uttar Pradesh belong to Scheduled Caste (the lowest of the low castes) category whereas 33 percent come from Other Backward Castes.

- 63 percent of the malnourished children in Uttar Pradesh suffer from dehydration of skin and 46 percent from dysentery. Besides, these malnourished children suffer from ailments like frequent fever, cold cough, disabilities, loco-motor problem, acute anaemia etc.

- 96 percent of the families of malnourished children do not earn basic minimum wages (In Uttar Pradesh te basic minimum wages are Rs. 120 per day).

- Only 50 percent of these children get any service under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).

- 65 percent of the families of malnourished children are landless, 38 percent are indebted and 29 percent do not have ration cards to get grains on subsidised rates.

- Less than 2 percent families of malnourished children, earn anything over Rs 5,000 as the monthly income of rest of the families is less than Rs. 3,000.

- The average size of a family in Uttar Pradesh is 7-10 people.

Let's hope the government hears the alarm bells and puts its act together before the situation becomes any more grim.

Alka Pande
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India)

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