The state government has set up an eclectic 13-member committee, comprising nutritionists, feted doctors and right-to-food activists from across Maharashtra to help reverse its abysmal track record in curtailing child malnutrition and deaths.
The panel's formation follows Thursday's Bombay High Court (HC) order on a public interest litigation on the issue. Over 21,000 children have died of malnutrition during the two-and-half-years that the case was being heard in court.
However, several members named in the committee are still unaware of its formation and the way it will function. Dr Abhay Bang, whom the high court has named as a committee member, told HT, "I must see the terms of reference and what our exact powers will be."
Chairing a Child Mortality Evaluation Group in 2005, Bang had recommended that a group outside the government monitor state schemes since officials were more interested in "under-reporting deaths, not addressing them".
Women & Child Development Secretary Vandana Krishna explained: "Various state departments will meet in a few days and decide how the committee will operate, and whom it will report to."
Named by Time Magazine as a Global Health Hero, Bang's SEARCH Foundation has been active in over 150 villages of north-east Maharashtra's Gadchiroli, helping establish home-based and community-based neo-natal care.
"Two-third of the deaths can be prevented by simple and timely health interventions," said Bang.
But other committee members said that the state also needs to address the problem of tenuous livelihoods.
Rajnikant Arole, a Magsaysay awardee, who has spent the past 35 years working on his Comprehensive Rural Health Project at Ahmednagar's Jamkhed village and will head the committee, said: "It would help if the Maharashtra government understood malnutrition for what it really is—starvation and hunger. Remove Mumbai, Pune and Nagpur, and Maharashtra is hardly a developed state."
Maharashtra aimed to reduce the infant mortality rate to 25 by 2004 and 15 by 2010. It is now 43, and at the current rate of progress, reaching the target will take over 20 years, by which time over 15 lakh more children would have died, Bang's committee estimated.
Ironically, a host of counter-measures exist, at least on paper. Maharashtra is the only state to have a dedicated Child Development Policy; Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh heads the state's Child Malnutrition Eradication Mission while a range of departments from Health to Food & Civil Supplies to the Employment Guarantee Scheme are entrusted with attacking the problem on the ground.
Shiraz Prabhu of the Kashtakari Sangathana based in Thane, which pips all other districts in the malnutrition charts, said: "The state claims to have started a host of programmes. But in reality, very little reaches the people, thanks to the widespread corruption and the officials' condescension towards tribals. Our committee must draw attention to these problems."