For the health of our children
The recent reports about more than 50 per cent children in Gujarat being malnourished calls for a major catharsis and creative response at all levels. I am reverting to this theme because the report produced in the Chinthan Shibir , a meeting of senior officers in Gujarat did not make me feel very assured about the healthy future of our children. I realize that a massive change in the social habits of feeding and bringing up children cannot be brought about only by government. But, government can still do many things. Just as the school principals, children’s own groups and networks and the media can also make a major difference.
One of the first things we should do is to accept that growth by itself cannot bring about healthy social change. But without growth, we won’t have enough resources. Therefore, a balanced approach to development requires rethinking of the growth model. The investment in education and primary health cannot be neglected if the sustainability of growth has to be assured. Let me suggest some initiatives which can hopefully help in reversing the current trends.
During our shodhyatra in Anantnag district in J&K, we had noticed that almost every farm had a small plot for cultivation of diverse vegetables. I have not seen such a practice during our shodhyatras within Gujarat and 20 other states. A delegation of mothers be taken from Gujarat to J&K to see these plots and assimilate the need for cultivating vegetables in every single farming household. Even otherwise, J&K is among the four states which have the least malnutrition among children and anemia among women. The lowest incidence of anemia is in Kerala and therefore, a similar delegation of women needs to be taken to Kerala to understand public policies, household practices, nutritional patterns and other cultural aspects which have helped in achieving such results. In northeast, Nagaland and Manipur are also relatively low in anemia among women. Interestingly, a study shows that in Kerala, almost 43 per cent women start breast feeding within one hour of birth and 92 per cent within one day. In Gujarat, the percentage is 10 and 37 respectively [1998-99]. The incidence of anemia among women was 55 per cent in Gujarat as against 33 per cent in Kerala .
It is obvious that while Gujarat has done a great deal good in physical and industrial infrastructure, it is yet to go some distance in achieving similar results in health infrastructure. Given the strength of AYUSH [Ayurveda, Yunnani, Siddha, Homeopathy, Yoga and Naturopathy] in preventive health, there ought to be a massive programme involving AYUSH professionals from public and private sector. Every medical student should be persuaded to take up one month internship only to propagate better child and mother care practices in the state. Every school should show films and organize lectures on the subject. The junk food industry must be obliged to print statutory warning on the packets about the ill-effects of the same for children and lactating mothers. The traditional knowledge of food and nutrition, held functionally valid, should be shared through posters, popular media, mobile phone campaigns and radio. This situation should be treated as an emergency. One cannot let the situation continue as if one can reverse the impairment of brain development caused by early stage malnutrition. Every village dairy must be persuaded to distribute and popularize milk within the villages. When I wrote about this subject in 1984, the colleagues in the NDDB did not like it. We are paying a heavy price of not stressing the value of giving milk to children and mothers. I was told then that pulse was a cheaper source of protein than milk. Even that is not true any more. Various women organizations have to come together to join hands in raising the societal consciousness on this subject in the shortest period of time. It is a pity that one does not find posters and announcements in trains and buses on the subject. Unless we respond, as we do in any other emergency, we will not be able to achieve durable results. Children, not only in Gujarat, but rest of the country deserve much better attention on this account than they are receiving. If one analyses the content of newspapers and public media, one would’t get an idea that this country is so indifferent towards the health of its children and mothers. Will the fruits of growth be enjoyable by sick generation in future? Ask yourself.
Anil K Gupta