As scam upon scam flood us this festive season, the 'masses' have obligingly faded into the background, quite literally. In Mumbai, where the mega Adarsh scandal is still unfolding, a more insidious scam, that which has caused persistent urban malnutrition has been in the works for decades. While the focus on malnutrition has been largely rural, those in urban slums have fallen between the cracks of apathetic policy and abysmal delivery systems. At last count, 3.5% of urban slum children in Mumbai did not live to see their sixth birthday. If this is the case in affluent Mumbai, the plight of children in urban slums in other smaller metropolises can only be worse.
The issue of malnutrition in urban slums has never really been a priority since the families residing in these places don't fall in the below the poverty line category. But what has been overlooked is that often with both parents working to make ends meet, the children receive little or no nutritional attention. In the fetid conditions of slums, the already undernourished child is more susceptible to infections and far less able to overcome them. The problem starts with the undernourished, overworked and illiterate or semi-literate mother whose children are born with a nutritional disadvantage. In Mumbai alone, according to the National Family Health Survey 2006 data, 99.2% of women received no health services of any sort in the slums. This means that the 35-year-old Integrated Child Development Services which is supposed to provide immunisation and monitor the growth of children up to the age of three has either failed or has been devastatingly ineffective. The reasons why this is so are not very far to seek. There are not enough clinics, there is not enough trained staff and mothers don't realise that something as invisible and silent as malnutrition could impair the child's life forever. In conditions where there is poor sanitation, lack of clean drinking water and excessive population density as in the slums, malnutrition could literally mean the difference between life and death for children.
Rural to urban migration is not a new phenomenon, it is something which will increase in the years to come. It speaks for skewed priorities and shoddy planning that migrant workers are not afforded even a basic standard of living in the cities. In an economy which is and will continue to be driven by skilled labour, children who are malnourished will never be able to be productive. At least in enlightened self-interest, more people who have the power and resources should make the battle against malnutrition more visible and effective than it has been so far. The less people have to eat, the more this will eat into the vitals of the economy in the long run.