While the world is at war, India is battling with poverty. It is a battle not fought on the ground but in the precincts of some hallowed chamber, and those that are involved in the battle are not armies but highly estimable economists. They are trying to figure out where to draw the line…the line that would inform policy makers how many poor people there are. In the meanwhile, with blessings of the weather gods, the crops are failing, economy is failing…more people are becoming poorer by the day. The food prices have shot up, so their income cannot keep pace.

So why can’t they reach a consensus. They are after all eminent in their field and have been conferring for days now. As Angus Deaton and John Dreze  (The Hindu, July 25 2014) explain:

The Rangarajan expert group on poverty measurement has done a great deal of hard and useful work. In its recent report, the group probes a wide range of critical issues — how to set poverty lines, the choice of price indexes for poverty comparisons, the discrepancy between National Sample Surveys (NSS) and the National Accounts Statistics, and more. Massive amounts of data were crunched to shed light on these issues.

Surely this would have led them somewhere. But you know, India is a vast country. A country with so much diversity, a nation with many nations. If that is at all comforting, there is that fact that India needs to do something about the hungry and malnourished people very quickly. Well there are several factors. India has a serious problem with sanitation. Poor sanitation leads to disease, that contributes to malnutrition. The problem is since we have not taken care of sanitation, the disease bearing viruses make their way into the soil on which the crops are grown, and the water bodies also get contaminated. That water is used by the livestock and humans to bathe, and drinking water comes from this source.

So if we compute the statistics for the number of malnourished, stunted and wasted children and adult who are unable to work due to disease this gives us an idea about what we are dealing with. Not just the previous generation, the future generation that ought to join the work force would be unable to do so because they would be physically unable to do so. So here are some figures:

Over 7 years (1998-99 2005-06) malnutrition has “declined only 1.1 percent” (The Hindu), Stunting has declined 7.1 percent, The decline in the percentage of underweight children is tiny. The variation in the decline of poverty and malnutrition needs to be examined, since the level of decline has not been according to expectation. According to a paper prepared by the Planning Commission, this can be due to poor investment in public health infrastructure, According to the paper quoted by The Hindu:

That is, the weakening of the absorptive capacity of the stomach due to gastrointestinal diseases and germs played a much more significant role in malnutrition than the availability of cereals which are the focus of the PDS system and ‘right to food’ advocates. The paper also suggested that basic public health information, nutritional knowledge and availability about nutritional foods may also play a role.*

*(Virmani, Arvind, The Sudoku of Growth, Poverty and Malnutrition: Lessons For Lagging States, Working Paper No. 2/2007-PC, Planning Commission, July 2007 http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/wrkpapers/rpwpf.htm) cited in the Hindu,Investing in health through hygiene dated July 28 2014.

As was illustrated in one of the paragraphs above, there is non-existent to very poor sanitation infrastructure available in most cities, towns, villages of India. More likely there is heavy use made of the open spaces – both in the urban centers and the rural areas. This spreads diseases that culminates in inability to take advantage of improved nutrition availability through improved distribution and other schemes.

Of course as is the case with everything in India, this does not cover all the ground. There are things like housing, socio-economic status, etc. Gender issues also play a role as food distribution within households is gender centric, a fact that has been brought out by Graffiti, time and again.



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