Published: October 26, 2015 - 12:54

They know little of the taste of meat. For their monotonous daily food they have nothing but a little khichri, made of ‘green pulse’ mixed with rice, which is cooked with water over a little fire until the moisture has evaporated, and eaten hot with butter in the evening; in the daytime they munch a little parched pulse or other grain, which they say suffices for their lean stomachs,” wrote Franco Palsaert in his report, based on the seven years he spent in Agra.

This extract, from the late Angus Maddison’s book, The Moghul Economy, could well have been written by his illustrious namesake and Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Angus Deaton. He won the award in 2015 for his work on the causes of stunting amongst children in India. His thesis attributes this to the rampant prevalence of malnutrition. Deaton is not impressed with the argument of those who want growth at all and any cost like Arvind Panagriya and Jagdish Bhagwati.

He does not agree with India’s high growth figures; he disputes the method of collection and interpretation. According to him, the current method allows scope for exaggeration. Deaton has worked with John Dreze on geographies that afford people to escape malnutrition.

Deaton surely did not have to look too hard to find the cases of stunting. Malnutrition is glaring in all parts of the country, and more so in regions that have a high ratio of vegetarianism.

In Gujarat, a study called the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) was undertaken by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in collaboration with UNICEF. The findings revealed an abysmal performance in providing nutrition to children.

So embarrassed was the state government that it did not officially release the data. It was a foreign publication that brought the details out in the open, and the veracity of the numbers was contested by the government. The figures revealed that the prevalence of stunting and severe stunting was much higher than the national average.

Earlier, the CAG report too had found every third child suffering from malnutrition. As this data was collected when the UPA was in power, Modi supporters alleged bias. As CM, he said something to the effect that Gujarati girls were figure-conscious and dieted all the time. Gujarat is predominantly vegetarian and the dominant ideology of the government encourages people to keep away from meat.

Stunting is visible amongst children in many areas of Uttar Pradesh where malnutrition is rampant. Last year, I came across men and women who looked like teenagers but alleged that they were all in their late twenties.

Their profile fits that of people described by economists like Deaton who do not get healthy and nutritious food between the ages of one and five. Many children die during this stage of their lives, those who survive only add to a large mass of people who do not benefit the country at all from the perspective of the demographic dividend. What does a society or a country do with people whose health and IQ are both poor? In many ways, it is a burden that has the potential to sap a nation’s resources and resolve.

What aggravates the crisis is when you have social Darwinists as policymakers who do not want to hike government funds in the social sector that can improve the lives of the poor and provide a better footing for the next generation of Indians. Although there is so much improvement needed to help ordinary people escape difficult lives, government expenditure on health does not match the enormity of the problem.

Then there is the problem of open-air defecation and poor hygiene that leads to all kinds of diseases. There are more people defecating in the open in India than the entire
population of the African continent. In terms of numbers, it is 802 million, and we have no urgency to put an end to it. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi admirably has lent his weight to the ‘clean India’ programme, which also involves the construction of millions of toilets all over the country, there is the insurmountable problem of mindset. People belonging to rural communities prefer to relieve themselves in the open rather than use commodes. Interestingly, this is largely a problem of the Hindu masses as the sanitary habits
of the Muslims and other communities are far better. Consequently, this is one of the reasons infant mortality is lower among these communities.

What also makes the minorities healthier in many northern areas is the consumption of animal protein, which is aggressively being denied by the religiously inclined BJP government. Even eggs are denied to infants and schoolchildren in State-sponsored meals, in states such as Madhya Pradesh. Oh, come on, guys, let them grow stronger so that they can fight their battles.

Editor of Delhi's Hardnews magazine and author of Bad Money Bad Politics- the untold story of Hawala scandal.

Read more stories by Sanjay Kapoor


This story is from print issue of HardNews