The evidence is compelling. Planners, implementers and academics all agree that the prevalence of malnutrition and child labour seriously obstructs economic growth.
Dozens of global studies testify that children’s malnutrition upsets their lifelong productivity, disease resistance and cognitive abilities. For low-income countries, the annual cost of malnutrition is three to four per cent of their GDP, cautions an ADB-UNICEF study of seven Asian nations including India.
Let us take a quick look at the child’s environment in India. Sixty years after independence, most children lack proper access to safe drinking water, adequate medical care or sanitation. About two third of babies are born anemic and a third stunted, according to National Family Health Survey 2005-06. In six states for which complete data is available, only 60 per cent children are immunized. With 47 per cent of its below-five population malnourished, India tops the ignominious global chart of underweight children.
Those who survive such bleak circumstances grow up as potential victims of human trafficking, child abuse, forced labour, and hazardous work. Seventy five per cent children are physically and 50 per cent are sexually abused, according to a Ministry of Women and Child Development study 2007. Of this about a quarter of all children face severe sexual abuse and 50 per cent work seven days a week. India also leads the world in the prevalence of child labour, despite its official statistics widely believed to be understated.
This month, India’s ban on child labour completes one year. Its overall share of children at work has declined from 34 per cent in 1951 to a little over 12 per cent in 2001, but sadly, the absolute numbers may not have come down. Niti Mehta of the Sardar Patel Institute of Economics and Research says in a 2007 paper that a part of the 29 to 34 million ‘idlers’ (who are neither enrolled in schools nor a part of the official labour statistics as per 2003-04 NSS figures) could indirectly be working.
India recognizes the need for investing in children through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. Various Government ministries have proposed impressive schemes and enabling legislations for child protection but the progress is painfully slow and uneven. For instance, infant mortality is a notable 15/ 1000 in Goa against a pathetic 73/1000 live births in UP. The only way forward is to make the states, districts and panchayats realize that rather than a drain on resources, investment in children means prosperity for all.