India is home to 2.1 million children who do not live to see their fifth birthday, almost 20% of the “global burden”, reported Unicef in its recent State of the World’s Children–2008. It is well known that malnutrition is the cause of more than 50% of under-five deaths. It is also well known that there is a “window of opportunity”, from pregnancy to two years of age, to address this situation.
The saddest thing in this state of affairs is that India has had a programme working in the villages and towns for the last three decades to address this window of opportunity as a solution for the vicious cycle of poverty, malnutrition of mothers and the resultant death of children under five—the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS).
Why then are our malnutrition and under-five mortality numbers so dismal?
While some international monetary organizations and political leaders blame the approach of the scheme and call for recasting it, ICDS activists fault the consistent lack of political will to expand and universalize the scheme, enhance the quality of services it delivers and invest more through budgetary allocations. Over the past few years, activists of the Right to Food campaign have been calling for “universalization of ICDS with quality”.
This would mean setting up more than 1.4 million Anganwadi centres, the hub around which ICDS revolves, enhanced provision for supplementary nutrition of Rs3 per child per day and implementation of a “two worker” model, with proper remuneration and training. These are the “critical few” that need to be addressed to ensure that 80 million children under six have access to the services of ICDS. This was supported by the “historic” Supreme Court order on 13 December 2006, which required the Union government to set up 1.4 million Anganwadis centres by December 2008.
In a report submitted to the Planning Commission in June 2007, the campaign laid out a clear plan to address these issues during the 11th Plan, supported by “massive” investment of close to Rs33,000 crore in the first year and a commitment to invest close to Rs30,000 crore every year during the course of the 11th Plan.
While the investment does look massive, it is just one-half of 1% of GDP (gross domestic product), as it would be in five years even at an 8% rate of growth. Also, comparing this with the 2-3% loss to GDP that the persistent presence of malnourished children extracts it is indeed a small price to pay for a nation with healthy children.
While the current UPA government, in its National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), had committed to “universalization of ICDS with quality”, the true test of the political will comes up every year when the finance minister presents the budget. Only disappointment has been consistent on this count.
The apex court’s mandate to have 1.4 million Anganwadis set up by December 2008 and the fact that this could be one of the last few budgets that the current UPA government could be presenting means that this is another “window of opportunity” to make good the commitment made in NCMP. Here is the chance for our current political leaders to save themselves from the infamy of being known as the ones who let the children rot while India boomed. Here is the chance to do the “right thing”.
Will the finance minister remember the children when he stands up to deliver the Budget speech in Parliament on 29 February?
Jayakumar Christian is national director of World Vision India. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org