The massive rounds of elections this year have thrown up a decisive mandate — that of people-centric governance. And the biggest challenge here will be to focus on the most marginalised among all sections and communities, namely women. With India ranking 114th among 134 countries on gender equality in the World Economic Forum rankings, this will take some doing.
The figure released at the India Gender Gap Review, of 300 maternal deaths per 100,000, is telling. We have been stuck at this figure for about a decade. This can only mean that schemes like the National Rural Health Mission have made little difference in villages where it was meant to beef up child survival and safe motherhood. As the World Health Organisation has said in the past, this unacceptably high number of deaths has everything to do with lack of political will and administrative and managerial indifference. Of course, the fact that spending on health is stuck at 0.9 per cent of GDP does not help.
The indifference to women’s health starts at the highest level and percolates down. This explains why almost no state has a maternal health director, though such a post is sanctioned. The record of the health ministers in the UPA’s first term and in the second has been most discouraging. While issues like education and the environment have got star billing, no one can remember the last time any serious initiative on women’s health was announced in recent times. The very foundation of the concept of inclusive growth must begin with maternal health and its attendant benefit of child survival.
The comparisons that show India in a poor light in relation to less-developed countries should prod us into action. But our tendency has been to challenge the figures as though there were some giant conspiracy to paint us in a bad light. The lamentable part of all this is that it requires very little effort and input to prevent these deaths. All it takes is a minimum number of trained medical personnel and functioning public health clinics so that women don’t die during childbirth. Instead we have hairbrained schemes about compulsory medical service in villages. Investing in women’s health has a multiplier effect. It impacts on children’s health, productivity and population stabilisation.
But, as always, it all comes down to political priorities.
With gender equality as the centerpiece, no political party can go wrong.