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March 19, 2017
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April 2, 2017

Across the aisle: Celebrating gods, neglecting children

Our idea of human resource development is minus child development, minus child health and minus child nutrition. In fact, ‘human resource development’ is the new name for ‘education’. Rajiv Gandhi’s pathbreaking and far-sighted idea of an all-embracing Ministry of Human Resource Development was abandoned soon after his death and what we have today is a euphemism for the old Ministry of Education.

We seem to have forgotten that education is for the child. Education will unleash the full potential of the child only if the child is well-fed and healthy. True, we have taken a number of initiatives to educate children, but what is the state of the children we wish to educate and who we hope will bloom into fine adult citizens?

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 is the fourth in the NFHS series. It provides the most comprehensive information (and data) on population, health and nutrition for the country and for each state. It is a report that is uplifting on some aspects and depressing on many others.

Shocking results

Undoubtedly, since Independence, India has made remarkable progress in several human development indicators. For example, since 1947, life expectancy has increased from 32 years to 66 years and literacy from 12 per cent to 74 per cent. Gender disparity between males and females on several indicators has narrowed. Nevertheless, the state of our children, despite the progress, is a matter of shame.

Let’s look at key indicators revealed by the NFHS 2015-16 (table right, top):

It has been medically established that the first five years of a child determine, by and large, the child’s health and physical and mental development during the rest of its life. What is the state of India’s children? One out of two children is anaemic, one out of three is underweight and stunted, and one out of five is wasted. The reasons are inadequate food, low nutrition, bad drinking water and appalling sanitation.

Food security neglected

India is a signatory to the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 24 (2) of the Convention states, inter alia, that: “State Parties shall… take appropriate measures to combat disease and malnutrition… through provision of adequate nutritious food and clean drinking water.”

The National Food Security Act, 2013, was enacted for “ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices”. It promised 5 kg of grain per person per month. Special provisions were made for pregnant and lactating mothers, children aged between 6 months and 6 years, and children suffering from malnutrition. Modest nutritional standards were specified: 500 to 800 calories and 12 to 25 grams of protein per day for various categories. The law mandated a State Food Commission in every state to oversee the implementation of the Act. As on March 21, the promise of the Act remained unfulfilled; and nine state governments have not constituted the State Food Commission. The list includes large states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka and historically poor states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. The Supreme Court has summoned the chief secretaries concerned to answer charges of callous negligence.

Doubtful commitment

While the primary responsibility lies with the state governments, the Central government’s commitment to our children is also suspect. Look at how little the Central government spends on key areas: (table left, below).

If the government had maintained the expenditure in the subsequent years at the same level as in 2013-14, it would have spent an additional amount of Rs 6,155 crore, Rs 18,087 crore and Rs 22,561 crore in the three years.

Successive governments — especially state governments — have miserably failed to look after the children of India. That, in my view, is the duty of the State next only to the duty to maintain law and order. Because of neglect, the quality of our human resources is poor. From economic growth to national security, everything depends on the quality of our human capital. The demographic dividend that we boast of is in danger of turning into a demographic millstone.

There is a proverb in Tamil to the effect, “Child and God dwell where they are celebrated.” It is sad that, as a nation, we celebrate our gods, but we neglect our children.

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