Jan 12, 2012

Only lip-sympathy for the malnourished


Although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed malnutrition a national shame, it appears as if only the legislators and the parliamentarians are the ones who are affected. A day after the Prime Minister released a survey report that stated 42 per cent children below the age of 6 yrs are malnourished; the Andhra Pradesh Assembly gave a hefty hike in salaries and allowances, and provided swanky SUVs to its legislators. The salary of AP minister will increase from Rs 70,000 to Rs 2 lakh, and the monthly allowance for MLAs will rise from Rs 36,000 to Rs 90,000. Telengana MLAs are being provided with swanky Toyota SUVs.

This is coming at a time when the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) is struggling with a terrible paucity of funds. Minister for Child Development Krishna Tirath has sought an increase of Rs 2 lakh crore for the next five years to augment the nationwide programme that helps provide supplementary nutrition to children and their mothers.

While the poor and malnourished are languishing, Delhi MLAs were showered a few months back with hefty pay hikes and additional allowances. An MLA, who used to get Rs 42,000 per month, now gets anything between Rs 90,000 and Rs 1 lakh. Ministers are getting a higher salary of Rs 1.2 to 1.3 lakh per month. On an average, the hike in basic salary resulted in a 100 per cent increase with a slew of additional perks like travel allowance, constituency allowance and allowance for attending the session were also appreciably enhanced.

Prior to Delhi, nine States including Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka had raised the salaries and perks of their legislators. Ironically, the State government too have time and again expressed their inability to provide its own share of resources to augment the supplementary health programmes. While the State’s have all the money for showering freebies for legislators, they have no money, for example, for the anganwadi workers. The anganwadi workers get a maximum of Rs 1800 per month, and are expected to counsel and motivate the expecting mothers. The anganwadi helpers are paid still less. In other words, the anganwadi workers and the helpers are themselves surviving ‘below the poverty line’. 

And now take a look at how the country is trying to fight malnutrition with meagre resources. According to the ICDS website, for supplementary nutrition the financial norms were revised recently. The cost of supplementary nutrition (per day per beneficiary) for different category of beneficiaries vide the Ministry’s letter No. F.No. 4-2/2008-CD.II dated 07.11.2008, are: Children (6-72 months): Rs 4 (up from Rs 2); Severely malnourished children (6-72 months): Rs 6 (up from Rs 2.70) and Pregnant women and nursing mothers: Rs 5 (up from Rs 2.30). No wonder, the Ministry has sought a four-fold hike in the budget of ICDS. All earlier efforts of the Ministry, and also by various Plan panels, acknowledging that the allocation for the priority sector programme was abysmally low had met with the standard answer: no additional funds are available.   

Only a miracle can remove malnutrition in the allocated Rs 4 for a child and Rs 6 for a pregnant mother. The 2005-06 National Family Health Survey III had showed that half of all children in India were under-nourished.

In September 2010, when an international child rights organisation Save the Children had come up with a damning report, the Indian Parliament had passed a bill that raised the basic salary of parliamentarians by three times, from Rs 16,000 to Rs 50,000 and at the same time raising their daily allowances and pension. Ironically, the Save the Children report “A fair Chance of Life” had stated: “Of the 26 million children born every year, approximately 1.83 million died before their fifth birthday”. Half of these children actually die within a month of being born. Parliament did not even take notice of the severity of the prevailing health crisis. 

Therefore when I see Prime Minister Manmohan Singh express shock and disgust, terming malnutrition a ‘national shame’ I am not the bit surprised. Seeing the timing of the report before the coming State Assembly elections in five States, the entire exercise seems to be aimed at the electoral prospects. Releasing a report on Hunger and Malnutrition (HUNGaMA) in New Delhi recently, he said:  "the problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame. Despite impressive growth in our GDP, the level of under-nutrition in the country is unacceptably high." This happen despite India’s GDP continuously remaining on a high.

While the entire policy planning, as we know, continues to revolve around opening up for more foreign direct investment, acquiring agricultural land for the industry and providing all kinds of sops and tax-concessions to the industry in the name of ‘policy paralysis’, the hungry and malnourished continue to live on hope. For a country which has the dubious distinction of having the largest population of hungry – an estimated 320 million – and ranks below Sub-Saharan Africa in malnutrition, there is little money when it comes to addressing malnutrition. Hunger and malnutrition are closely correlated. Feeding the population is the first requisite to building up a healthy population. Supplementary nutrition programme like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and anganwadis can only be effective when adequate resources are made available. But where is the money?

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