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According to a shocking new report, four lakh Indian children die within 24 hours of their birth every year. Divya Gupta reports

Hunger’s shadow A mother tends to her malnourished child at a nutritional rehabilitation centre in MP
Photo: Sayantan Bera

SOON AFTER World War I ended in 1919, an English lady named Eglantyne Jebb invited the collective ire of her country by providing food supplies and help to “children of the enemy” – dying and starving children in Hungary and eastern Europe.

Jebb was operating on deeply humanistic and evolved logic: “Mankind as a whole is responsible for the world as a whole,” she said, “and people of every race should unite to get rid of such evils as child slavery, premature marriage, child labour and neglect and starvation of children.”

In 1922, Jebb brought the organisation she founded — Save the Children — to India and crossed paths with a person in a similar league of human compassion: Mahatma Gandhi. At about the same time she also drafted a document signed by Gandhi and other international dignitaries which was a precursor to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. As of December 2008, 193 countries had ratified the covenant, including India.

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UNFAIRY Tales 1

ALMOST A CENTURY after the idea of child rights was born, India has the world’s lowest indices of infant mortality and malnutrition. Child labour is endemic, child trafficking rampant and child illiteracy commonplace. Beginning this week, TEHELKA will run a six-part series on the state of child rights in India

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Almost a century after Jebb founded the idea of child rights, a staggering nine million children die each year before the age of five of largely preventable causes. Twenty per cent of the deaths take place in India, giving it the dubious distinction of having the highest infant mortality worldwide

According to a recent Save the Children report, a shocking four lakh Indian children die every year within 24 hours of birth. Neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have substantially lower newborn mortality rates and India is badly off-track in attaining its Millennium Development Goal 4 – reducing infant mortality by two-thirds by 2015.

When solutions and success stories exist in our own backyard, how could we have got it so wrong for so long?

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DAMAGING STATISTICS

1.95 million children die in India every year before their fifth birthday

20 percent of global infant mortality occurs in India, making it the highest in the world

85 percent of all infants in India die from neonatal causes, pneumonia or diarrhoea

33 percent of all the malnourished children in the world live in India

72 per 1,000 live births is India’s newborn mortality rate— three times that of Sri Lanka

171 out of 175 is India’s global ranking in public health spending

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In early 2008, the Planning Commission of India had recommended that the Gadchiroli model be scaled up across India. No such scheme has yet seen the light of day. The Janani Nirakshan Yojna, which offers cash incentives to women to have institutional child delivery, is a step in the right direction and may have reduced maternal mortality but has shown no reduction in infant mortality. Meanwhile, no national program exists that reaches every village and checks the causes that kill newborn babies in time. “A child does not make political noise – a child does not vote, a child does not protest, a child does not cause violence. So, beyond a point why should politicians care?” asks Bhang.Not surprisingly, many of the stories of despair come from India’s “BIMARU” states – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Utter Pradesh. Collectively, they account for almost half of India’s malnourished children and infant mortality. Hosnojahaan is a beedi maker living in Tonk, a town in Rajasthan. The wife of a poor carpenter, her story is as distressing as it is common.

‘A child does not vote. So, why should politicians care?’ asks Abhay Bhang

 

Death redux Sumil with her three-year-old daughter who has had two relapses of malnutrition
Photo: Sayantan Bera

Mewa lives in Ajmer in central Rajasthan. A mother of four, she suffers from TB herself and has already lost one child when he was two years old. “I don’t know why my son passed away. He wasn’t even ill,” she says. “My other 18-month-old child won’t eat or drink anything else apart from the occasional roti and biscuit. I don’t know if my child is underweight. How should I know how heavy a child should be?

Sayeda Hameed, a member of the Planning Commission of India, vividly recalls the story of Mehrnessa and her infant son Adnan while on tour in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. A member of the bunkar (weaver) community, Mehrnessa was too weak to breastfeed her son when she gave birth. For the first six months of his life, Adnan’s diet was just sabutdane ka pani (tapioca pearls in plain water). It’s not clear whether Adnan, now one-anda- half years old, will survive.

When solutions exist in our own backyard, how could we have got it so wrong for so long?

Indian politicians, policymakers and economists often invoke the so-called “demographic dividend” – the idea that India will reap economic benefits in the decades to come due to its large youthful population. But as Hameed put it, “All that will be a write-off if our children are going to be weak, stunted or keep dying.”On the other hand, states such as Kerala, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and even insurgencyridden Manipur and Mizoram fare far better (15-38 deaths per 1,000 live births) than the national average (57 deaths per 1,000 live births). Clearly, cultural norms (matriarchy in some cases), better governance and political will play the role that the “invisible hand” might play in the market economy – that of a magic pill.

But there’s something much greater at stake. Jebb was accused of helping the “children of the enemy.” India is at risk of becoming the “enemy of its children”.

WRITER’S EMAIL 
divya@tehelka.com

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