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Under-age, Under-nourished, Under-weight

Nowadays, the majority of fitness or nutritional guides focus on weight loss, which diet fits you best and how to lose fat. But what about the other half which has no access to even a basic, one time meal? Poverty and food insecurity kills and continually hurts hundreds of millions of us.

More than five lakh Indian children die of malnutrition every year. That is 10,000 each week. Thirty eight per cent of Indian children are stunted at age 2, forever denying them a fulfilling life, intellectually and physically. The average baby born in India is more likely to be stunted than the average baby in sub-Saharan Africa. This "South Asian enigma" has been written about a lot but not explained satisfactorily. Recent research has pointed to open defecation, which is more widespread in India than Africa.

According to Seema Jayachandran, at Northwestern University, USA, and Rohini Pande,of the Harvard JFK School of Government, USA, the above explanation overlooks one key factor: the birth order. They conducted a study in India and 25 sub-Saharan African countries to compare heights by age in a sample of more than 174,000 children under-5-years.They found that firstborn Indian children are taller than firstborn African children! The South Asian enigma seems to begin there after, becoming more pronounced for successive babies.

The worst affected is the girl child. It starts from discrimination against girl children even before birth. Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the celebrated author of The Gene and quoted in the N Blog post, calls this India’s very own exercise in eugenics. As the story above shows, families allocate all necessary resources --nutritious foods, iron supplements, tetanus shots and prenatal checkups --to a pregnant woman as long as there is a possibility that she is carryingthe family's firstborn son. Once a male heir is born, prenatal investments drop off.

The birth of a baby girl is not always marked by celebrations, girls are sometimes named names like Mafi (Sorry) or Dhapu (Enough),they are forced to drop out of school after primary school to assist with chores at home, and so on. The ultimate adding of insult to injury is to marry the girl off early, well before 18 years. She is pushed into a life of early pregnancy, frequent pregnancies, short-spaced babies who are, most likely, born under-weight with poor chances of survival. The cycle of inter generational health poverty begins all over again. The women call it destiny.

An underweight baby, by the latest definition below 3 Kgs at birth, is highly susceptible to infections due to a weak respiratory and immune system. This leads to stunting resulting in impaired cognitive ability, fatigue, loss of interest and curiosity, and failure to learn motor skills. Stunted children are more likely to fall behind their healthier counterparts, and eventually drop out of school. It affects a country’s growth and development since an undernourished adult is likely to have lower productivity and therefore earn lower income and contribute less to the economy. According to the new National Family Health Survey – 4 data for 15 states shows that 37 percent of children under the age of five is stunted.

Mobile Creches Response

Mobile Creches (MC) since its inception had recognized the importance of early intervention and always committed itself to sow change for children of migrant construction workers.

In the urban slum intervention, Mobile Creches works in close partnership with the community to bring change in the situation of young children. The strategies include regular home visits, counseling on childcare practices for parents/families of young children and through one to one interactions.

Besides coalitions and collaborations with like-minded NGOs, strong community groups are formed and issues related to Early Childhood Development are introduced as an important part of messaging to the community. We work together to build evidence from the ground and sensitize all key stakeholders, including and especially elected members, to address the problems and use current policies and programmes to resolve them.

Another epidemic we have to guard ourselves against is that of being Under-informed ! Lack of information, one-sided information or misinformation can prove deadly. It is a curious paradox of the information age. An explosion of information on the one hand – in terms of quantity and access – and yet a world divided increasingly into black and white, with critical positioning and messaging coming through 140 characters!

Children of Men,P. D. James' 1992 novel, a dystopian story of two decades of human infertility comes to mind. Her novel describes what happens when society is unable to reproduce: there’s despair and a sense of futility all around. Hope depends on future generations. James writes, "It was reasonable to struggle, to suffer, perhaps even to die, for a more just, a more compassionate society, but not in a world with no future where, all too soon, the very words 'justice,' 'compassion,' 'society,’ 'struggle,' 'evil,' would be unheard echoes on an empty air.”

Let us inform ourselves, talk to one another, understand one another, and work towards not a Utopian India but a gentler India that cares for its children, women and men.

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