Penny Macrae, AFP
Kolaras, India: His wizened frame cradled in his mother’s arms, 18-month-old Nitish gazes listlessly at his surroundings in an Indian government feeding centre in this parched farming belt.
The baby’s skin is so taut that each rib can be counted and his whispy hair is a rusty brown rather than glossy black, characteristic of malnutrition.
“He just got thinner and thinner after getting diarrhea,” said his mother Savitri, 24, a farm labourer’s wife.
On the other side of the room, seven-month-old Niketa, being fed formula milk with a spoon by her grandmother, waves a stick-like arm. Her mother died two days after she was born following a difficult delivery.
“God is unjust — He took her mother away and her father doesn’t want her,” said her grandmother Soni, 55, rocking the tiny doll-like figure at the feeding centre in Kolaras in central Madhya Pradesh state.
These babies, lying in a room hung with pictures of roly-poly infants smiling down, are just two of the 46% of all Indian children under three years old that the government says are malnourished.
In the dust-bowl state of Madhya Pradesh, where monsoon rains have been scant for five years, the number is higher — a staggering 60%, the worst in the country.
“It’s the silent emergency — children are just fading away,” said Meital Rusdia, spokeswoman for the UN children’s agency Unicef.
Malnutrition endures despite India’s booming economy, which grew by an average 8.5% over the past four years.
“It’s shameful to have India become a trillion-dollar economy and to have nearly 50% of the children hungry,” pediatrician Vandana Prasad, a member of the People’s Health Movement.
Government investments in development are “insufficient,” Unicef says.
Figures for child mortality, underweight children and other basic health indicators have shown no significant improvement in seven years.
While India has banished the spectre of famine that plagued its history and overshadowed the early years of independence, “household level” food security has still not been achieved.
Millions subsist on the barest of basic foods — wheat, lentils and rice. Poor sanitation, undernourishment and haphazard immunisation makes them vulnerable to infection. Children suffer most in this cycle.
The “anganwadis” or village child care centres look after children under six and are the government’s first line of defence against malnutrition.
The Supreme Court has ordered free noon meals for all children under six. But the Citizens’ Initiative for the Rights of Children Under Six has highlighted lack of funds, poor staffing and corruption in providing meals that are often scanty and sometimes non-existent as the money has been pocketed.
At one centre visited by AFP, the children were served two small pieces of flat Indian bread and a tiny portion of potatoes. There was no protein.
“The government only gives Rs2 (five cents) per child. What can you do with such small funds. What they get is a disgrace,” said an aid worker who asked not to be identified.
To help severely malnourished babies, the government has set up intensive feeding centres but there just are not enough.
“The babies’ mothers are often undernourished and they have low weight babies,” said Dr Nisar Ahmed, whose job it is at the Kolaras feeding centre to fatten up the children.
Nearly a third of children are born underweight which means their mothers are underweight and undernourished.
“Some mothers just don’t produce enough breast milk,” he says.
Also, as pediatrician Prasad notes, many mothers do not have time to regularly breastfeed as they must work as farm or manual labourers, domestic servants or in factories.
“Some 97% of working women in India work in the unorganised sector” — a catch-all phrase for casual workers — “and nobody makes time for them to breast-feed so their children suffer,” she says.
Some unlucky babies like Niketa lose their mothers in childbirth or soon after. The maternal mortality ratio is 540 maternal deaths per 100,000 births, mainly due to lack of timely, proper health care.
Malnutrition exacts a high cost.
“Their physical and mental development is stunted,” says Ahmed.
With 40% of India’s population under 18, the malnutrition figures are significant for India’s future. Some studies suggest widespread malnutrition lops two to four percentage points off potential economic growth.
Ahmed says for every baby who is saved, many go undetected. We do our best but we can’t reach everyone,“ he said.