THE OTHER HALF
The Sensex, Sania and starvation
India may be the flavour everywhere, but the Human Development Report 2005 comes as a very cold shower.
LAGGING BEHIND: It is a poor quality of life for many
AS a country we have been busy patting ourselves on the back. India seems to be the flavour everywhere. We constantly read about our encouraging economic growth rate. We are not a bechara (poor thing) nation any more, we are told. There are signs everywhere of the Indian success story. The Sensex has crossed 8,000. Indian companies are emerging as global players. Indian players are making their mark on the global scene not just Sania Mirza but also Anju George and several others who escape the notice of the media.
Against all this euphoric news, the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2005 comes like a very cold shower. We may be growing economically but we are also expanding in our levels of inequality. In fact, we are doing very well on that score. And this certainly calls for no celebration. For even as we boast of our growth rates, booming stock market and high-tech achievements, thousands of Indian children are dying for the lack of low-tech interventions. One of the depressing statistics in the HDR 2005 is that despite years of campaigns and efforts, only 42 per cent of Indian children are fully immunised.
In the very months that the Sensex, located in India's commercial capital of Mumbai, steadily rose to cross 8,000, in the hinterland of India's most prosperous State, Maharashtra, 2,675 children died of malnutrition within four months from April to July. They were concentrated in five tribal-dominated districts Thane, Nandurbar, Nashik, Amravati and Gadchiroli. These are government figures. For every one reported death, there are bound to be several others that go unrecorded.
These children died because they were born to low birth weight mothers and remained precariously undernourished even as they survived childbirth. But a combination of a lack of food and the absence of effective maternal and infant health care combined with persistent poverty ensured that they did not survive for long. Over a thousand of these deaths were of infants below one year of age.
Maharashtra has little to boast of in the face of these child deaths that recur every year. In fact, unlike some other parts of India, Maharashtra's infant mortality rate has remained stagnant for the last six years, at 45 per 1,000 live births. What is worse, according to data from the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau, 5.4 per cent of children in Maharashtra, or eight lakhs, suffer from acute malnutrition while another 21.2 per cent or 32 lakhs suffer from moderate malnutrition. In other words, one in every four children in one of India's better off States suffers from acute or moderate malnutrition.
The national average is not much better. According to HDR 2005, "malnutrition, which has barely improved over the past decade, affects half of the country's children." Also, India as a whole has not made much progress in bringing down child mortality. As noted by the HDR, the annual rate of decline in child mortality in India fell from 2.9 per cent in the 1980s to 2.3 per cent since 1990. In contrast, Bangladesh has done much better, despite a lower economic growth as compared to India. Child and infant mortality in Bangladesh has been falling at more than five per cent a year and malnutrition in mothers has fallen from 52 per in 1996 to 42 per cent in 2002.
The question we must ask is what do we value more, overall economic growth or the health of our children. Do we have to choose or can the two go together? HDR 2005 rightly emphasises that inequalities within countries weaken the link between economic growth and poverty reduction. And that in highly unequal societies, growth has little impact on reducing poverty. It states: "Some of the most highly visible globalisation `success stories', including China and India, are failing to convert wealth creation and rising incomes into a more rapid decline in child mortality. Deep-rooted human development inequality is at the heart of the problem."
Making matters worse for India's children is what the HDR terms as India's human development legacy of "pervasive gender inequalities". As a result, the death rate for the 1-5 age group is 50 per cent higher for girls than boys resulting in 1,30,000 "missing girls". HDR notes that the "gender gap is one of the major obstacles that needs to be overcome by India to convert economic success into human development success".
For those who monitor development issues, none of this is new or startling. Behind this stagnation in human development indicators is a pattern of growth that fails to spread benefits to all sections. The HDR points out that across India, rural unemployment is rising while agricultural output is growing very slowly, at less than two per cent. Agricultural wages have also not increased and the growth that India has seen has been virtually "jobless". In other words, enhanced economic growth has not created more jobs and sources of income for more people. As a result, people at the bottom of the heap, like the tribal communities in Maharashtra, remain where they are or sink even lower even as those at the top of the heap prosper and grow.
Most societies are unequal. We have seen that most dramatically in the images that were telecast around the world in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The richest nation does not care for its poor. But that is an example India does not need to follow.
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