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India's gnawing pain

Almost half the children are malnourished in a nation that touts its economic growth and sees itself as a rising power.

August 24, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

SARAIYA, INDIA — Sitting in the basket of a hanging scale, 20-month-old Deep Kumar epitomizes the silent but monumental crisis gripping this country: The needle stops at 14 pounds.

A healthy child his age ought to weigh nearly twice as much. But very little about Deep is healthy. Whereas a normal toddler would run around, the boy seems to struggle to keep his stunted frame sitting upright. His limbs are pitifully thin, the bones within as fragile as glass.

These are classic signs of severe malnutrition, and they are branded on the wasted bodies of millions of youngsters across India.

Astonishingly, an estimated 40% of all the world's severely malnourished children younger than 5 live in this country, a dark stain on the record of a nation that touts its high rate of economic growth and fancies itself a rising power.

Soaring food prices and ineffectual government threaten to push that figure even higher. Officials are beginning to wake up to the magnitude of the emergency, as experts warn of grave consequences for the future of India's economic boom if the state fails to improve the well-being of its youngest citizens.

Already, the proportion of malnourished children is several times greater than in China, Asia's other developing giant, and double the rate found in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

"This is a stunning fact," said Abhijit Banerjee, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the problem.

To its credit, India has in the last several decades succeeded in warding off the specter of famine that regularly haunted the subcontinent well into the 20th century. As a result of better farming techniques and food-security policies, mass starvation is no longer the dread concern it once was.

But that achievement, as well as the recent euphoria over India's rapid economic expansion, has obscured the government's failure to help provide its people, particularly the young, with the nutrients needed to build healthy, productive lives.

Many officials were shocked when a 2005-06 government study revealed hardly any progress in reducing child malnutrition over the last decade and a half -- exactly when the Indian economy was exploding and attracting international attention.

"This has not been a policy priority for this country for the last 40 years," said Victor M. Aguayo, chief of child nutrition and development at the United Nations Children's Fund office in New Delhi. "There was an underlying assumption that as soon as economic growth takes place, this will vanish. So let's focus on economic growth; let's focus on getting rich."

Instead, India's performance in combating child malnutrition has been worse than that of other countries with similar economic conditions. Close to half of all young children in India -- or a staggering 60 million -- are malnourished. Only Bangladesh and Nepal have a higher percentage of underweight children.

In a speech last year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged the gravity of the situation, calling it a "national shame."

"We cannot deny that it is a crisis," said Loveleen Kacker, a senior official at the central Ministry for Women and Child Development. "Maybe we didn't treat it like a crisis earlier, which we should have. Then we would have taken corrective steps much earlier than now. And what we're thinking of doing now we should've started 10 years back."

The World Bank estimates that malnutrition and its negative effects on health and productivity cost India as much as 3% of GDP a year. Beyond the economic fallout is the damage to India's image and credibility as it tries to assert itself as an important player on the world stage.

"It's not nice to want to have an international role and then find that you're having to defend such an indefensible position," Kacker said.

Just why malnutrition remains such a stubborn problem here is due to a constellation of causes that tend to reinforce and aggravate each other, creating "the perfect storm of risk factors," as Aguayo put it.

At root is the abject poverty so pervasive in India, where one-third of the population of 1.1 billion squeaks by on less than $1 a day. Another third makes do with $2 a day.

That deprivation can stack the cards against a child before he or she is even born. Too many women here are underweight and undernourished themselves, the major reason why 30% of Indian babies enter the world weighing less than 5 1/2 pounds. Afterward, in the crucial first two years of life, many children are fed sugary water, animal milk, rice and other foods lacking the fat, protein and vitamins necessary for proper physical and mental growth.

"Women too thin and anemic, giving birth to tiny babies, who are poorly fed in the first two years of life: That's the synopsis of the tragedy," Aguayo said. "India needs to break this intergenerational cycle of malnutrition."

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