Beneath the layer of a chugging economic powerhouse, a bullish stock market and a 'we-have-arrived' swagger, India's core fundamentals that lie beyond pure economics are still very weak. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute's 2010 Global Hunger Index (GHI) released on Monday, India is ranked 67, miles 'below' China (9), worse off than Sri Lanka (39), Pakistan (52) and Nepal (56). The GHI rated 84 countries on the basis of three equally weighted indicators: the proportion of people who are undernourished, the proportion of children under 5 who are underweight, and the child mortality rate. The real import of India's abysmal status becomes evident when seen in percentage terms: the country is home to a whopping 42 per cent of world's malnourished children and 35 per cent of the developing world's low-birth weight infants. Every year, 2.5 million children die in India, accounting for one in five deaths in the world. Sadly, more than half of these deaths can be prevented if children were well nourished in what the authors of the report have called the "thousand day window of opportunity", which means intense nutritional focus from -9 to +24 months — that is, the pivotal 1,000 days between conception and a child's second birthday.
It is not the first time that the nutritional deficiency has brought India under the unsavoury spotlight. In September, an ActionAid report said that the country's "failure to invest in agriculture and support small farms has left nearly half the country's children malnourished, with one fifth of the one billion plus population going hungry". Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has expressed his desire that the government addresses malnutrition on a "war footing". Such data proves once again that the social security net and the delivery systems are not working as seamlessly they are trotted out to be. Most scandalously, they don't even have any nutrition focus. Take the still-defective Public Distribution System. Its focus has always been on rice and wheat. Perilously, the same is the case with the waiting-in-the-pipeline Food Security Act. Why is it that India is so pusillanimous when it comes to bringing about changes in policies? And why does it shrink and go into a hole each time it learns some unpalatable truths from evidence gleaned from international organisations? Isn't it time that we formulate a new format for Integrated Child Development Services that, in its present form, doesn't even cover the nutritional needs of a pregnant mother and by extension her unborn child? In the absence of a nutritional input, many in rural India believe that they can 'cure' distended the stomachs of their famished children by branding them with pokers. Without sounding like a party-pooper, that's how 'ahead' of the pack we are.
Since access to proper healthcare is a right of any child, there's a greater need to tackle the underlying conditions that cause malnutrition in this country. Let the rhetoric stop and the government prioritise nutrition as a key issue in political and policy processes. Otherwise, we will be saddled with a population that will make a mockery of that fashionable mantra: 'demographic dividend'.