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Nothing worse than being born poor in this country

columns Updated: Dec 13, 2014 22:08 IST

Very tricky characters, our cute Indian kids. You never know what they’ll be up to next. In 2013, guess what they did — 1.3 million of the little blighters died before reaching their fifth birthday. That’s 3,561 of them popping off every day, 148 every hour. Now what on earth do they mean by doing that?

That grisly little detail is provided by a United Nations report on child mortality. India has the highest number of children dying before the age of five, with preventable and curable diseases like diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria carrying them off, most of them already weakened by malnutrition. For every thousand Indian kids born alive, 53 of them will never celebrate their fifth birthday.

Ah, but we’re a poor country and maybe these babies had bad karma. Sure, the under-five mortality rate is 13 per thousand in China and a mere 10 per thousand in Sri Lanka, but those countries are richer than us. True, dirt-poor countries like Bangladesh and Eritrea and Nepal, with less than half India’s income per head, do a better job of preventing their kids from dying early, but let’s be fair — we do much better than Somalia.

The World Bank says China’s income per head in 1990 was less than a third of what India’s is now and yet they had an under-five mortality rate of 54 per thousand then, only a tad worse than India’s current rate. If we had achieved Chinese standards and saved around a million kids every year since 1990, we would have saved 23 million lives by 2013. Putting it differently, we’ve allowed 23 million kids to quietly die since 1990. For perspective, three million people died in the Bengal famine of 1943.

But that’s sensationalism. Next, some bleeding heart will say it’s a slaughter of the innocents, or even a holocaust. The guys who wrote the UN report are loony leftist liberals. These people talk as if the character of a nation depends on how it takes care of its kids. See, if those babies are dead it’s their parents’ responsibility. Why do the poor breed if they can’t care for their children? Why should our tax money be frittered away in helping them?

RBI governor Raghuram Rajan recently talked of the Rs 1,61,018 crore in loans written off by banks in the last five years, which would have allowed 1.5 million of the poorest children to get a university degree. Or it could have been used to save the lives of millions of kids. But what the heck, crony capitalists need the cash. And who’s going to give us the money for becoming a world power, for giant statues and for increasing the top one per cent’s share of the country’s wealth, stuck at just 49%? I’m sure we can come up with other excuses.

Here’s the good news. Children in the poorest fifth of the population in India are three times more likely to die before the age of five than kids in the richest 20%. That’s a huge relief. Of course, this is no country for poor children. They will have to wait their turn till we build a shiny new India and the money and medicines finally trickle down to them. Till then, they must give up this childish habit of dying like flies on the slightest pretext.

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint

The views expressed by the author are personal