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The Times of India
21 September 2012
New Delhi, India.

India is in the bottom of the world's maiden nutrition barometer along with countries like Angola, Cameroon, Congo and Yemen.

The barometer – announced by Save the Children on Thursday – has analyzed the governments' commitments and outcomes in improving nutrition in 36 countries, which are home to 90% of undernourished children. The study has also compared the governments' performance in tackling under nutrition and child mortality.

It has found that India's spectacular economic growth has not translated into better nutrition outcomes for many of her children.

The data shows that almost half of Indian children are underweight and stunted, and more than 70% of women and kids have serious nutritional deficiencies such as anemia.

The report says that children in poor households are more than twice as likely to be stunted as those in affluent ones.

However, even in the wealthiest 20% of the population, one child in five is undernourished. India's performance in the barometer indicates both "frail commitments and outcomes".

The number of children dying before their fifth birthday declined from 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011 globally.

In contrast to this overall positive trend, progress in reducing childhood under nutrition has been tardy.

It remains the underlying cause of more than a third of all child deaths worldwide at around 2.3 million in 2011.

India's neighbours like Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal are also part of the report, but they fare better than the big brother in dealing with malnutrition.

Save the Children India's CEO Thomas Chandy said, "We know the geographic areas and the social groups where malnutrition levels are the highest. We also know the reasons. The report is a pointer to the need to back political commitment with adequate resources and effective mechanisms."

He added, "In India, states that have supported their policies and schemes with adequate resources and political will have done much better in dealing with malnutrition and child mortality and maternal mortality."

India's spending on health is abysmally low, only 1.67% of the GDP has been earmarked in the 12th Plan.

The report warned that India is likely to miss the Millennium Development Goal on child mortality.

While under–five mortality declined from 107 in 1995 to 64 in 2009, at the present rate India will reach 54 against the target of 42 by 2015. Malnutrition is one of the biggest underlying causes of child mortality in India. According to the report, maternal under nutrition, long-term exposure to a poor diet and repeated infections have also left 165–170 million children under-five stunted, preventing them from reaching their full potential.

"Stunting is a 'hidden' problem in many populations, and children may not appear undernourished. However, stunting indicates impairment to both physical and cognitive development, which can have lifetime consequences for a person's health, educational attainment and economic productivity. Alarmingly, the proportion of wasted children (suffering acute weight loss) actually went up in the second half of the 2000s," the report added. It cited that growth has lifted millions out of poverty but it has also been largely unequal, with the benefits accruing to a small segment of the population.

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The report quoted PM Manmohan Singh, who recently referred to under nutrition levels as a "matter of national shame" with enormous costs in terms of health, well–being and economic development.

Save the Children recommends that countries revising or drafting nutrition plans should include national and sub-national targets for improving nutrition and reducing stunting.

This year has been a critical year for action on nutrition. In May, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution on maternal, infant and young child nutrition, including a target to reduce the number of stunted kids by 40% by 2025.

Times View
This is not the first time that such a depressing picture has emerged on India's social reality. Even so, it's a shame for a country that boasts of being a top emerging economy with ambitions of being a world player. The fact remains that there is still shocking poverty in the country which, unless addressed, will stymie growth and kill our ambitions. The report draws attention to India's ill-fed underbelly and exposes the failure of several schemes to address healthcare issues among the poor. Instead of reacting negatively to such assessments, the government should take them seriously and take up the challenge of providing basic nourishment to the poorest of the poor. If corruption is springing leaks in the delivery systems for the poor, it should be dealt with ruthlessly. Responsibilities for delivery need to be fixed and people held accountable.

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