Daya Varma and Vinod Mubayi


Aarti Dhar reported in the Hindu (January 11, 2012) the findings of a survey by Naandi Foundation. The survey found that 42 percent of Indian Children are malnourished. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it “a national shame’; that is true but he forgot to add that this is the gravest threat to India’s future as well.


The news did not lead to any major reaction from other political leaders. For the media, it was just like any other news. This report came at the same time as the purported appearance “the coming, may be coming, not coming” drama of Salman Rushdie at the seventh Jaipur Literary Festival. There was nauseating amount of reportage on Salman Rushdie, and on so-called freedom of expression versus democracy. Elections are being held in five states including UP which harbors more poor than perhaps the rest of the world but none of the major parties raised the question of combating the peril of poverty. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is on the verge of holding its Congress but its General Secretary is focusing attention that the Congress would deal with the issue of a non-BJP, non-Congress alliance rather than with what concerns India. Even the question of the age of the Chief of Army Staff General Vijay Kumar Singh got more attention than the state of millions of poor children. Characters like Anna Hazare and the new found Kiran Bedi were doing everything to divert the main issue facing India for a while until they decided to arouse the UP electorate to vote for Hindutva.


It is ironic that the only leader who took note of mass poverty in India was Indira Gandhi who gave a call to eradicate poverty (Garibi Hatao); she did not accomplish much on this front but at least she recognized the problem.  In contrast, Dr. Manmohan Singh found Maoists and not Poverty the greatest threat to India. Other leaders fall in between – some concerned with petrol prices, which mainly affect the car-owning upper and middle classes, and some with replacing mosques with Hindu temples.


There are poor in every country.  May be the difference in the income of the poorest and richest is greater in other countries, such as Brazil or South Africa or even in the 99% vs. 1% controversy raging in the US, than in India. But absolute poverty of the scale as exists in India is of significance for two reasons: first, for its sheer scale of hundreds of millions of people that dwarfs the total population of almost all other countries of the world barring a handful, and, second, because it exists side by side with vulgar wealth.  The latter was more hidden from view in the early years of independent India due to a certain Gandhian-induced reticence on the outward display of wealth.  However, since liberalization and globalization, this reticence has disappeared symbolized by the 27 story Ambani mansion in downtown Mumbai with its helicopter pad and ballrooms where a single stays a few days each month; in a metropolis marked (or marred) by huge urban slums, homes to millions living in destitution.


The findings of the Naandi foundation were based on a survey of 100,000 children across six states. It is a big enough sample and the inference of mass malnutrition in the country is a realistic appraisal. The implication of such mass poverty among children is of paramount significance for the present and the future. Several studies all over the world including in the advanced countries of the West have revealed that poverty is directly related to poor health. One can sadly conclude that 42% malnutrition during childhood will hamper the development of a vast majority of survivors even if some of them start getting appropriate nutrition as they begin to work.


There are rich and poor, over-fed and under-fed in every country. India is a constituent of BRICS and threatening to be an alternate to western hegemony. Lots of wealth can be seen in India and upholding the age-old tradition of Maharajas and Nawabs, the rich proudly display their vulgar wealth. And yet India is the home of more poor than the rest of the world.


It is a pity that there no mass upsurge against this state of affairs in India appears to be on the horizon.  The promises made in the Directive Principles of State Policy in India’s Constitution, and the hopes symbolized by Pandit Nehru’s speech on India’s “tryst with destiny” on midnight August 14-15, 1947, have remained large unfulfilled for a great number of India’s people.

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