As things stand, 2019 is likely to be an election driven by emotion. As Narendra Modi hit out at the Opposition that they were trying to “finish Modi” while he wanted to finish “terrorism, poverty and malnutrition”, it is probably the first time that a prime minister had put combating malnutrition amongst his top three priorities, and that too as an election promise.
As poll talk generates heat, a report has put out cold figures about child malnutrition in India’s 543 Lok Sabha constituencies. This is the first time that constituency-wise data has been released by a Harvard professor, S V Subramanian, and his team, including researchers from the Indian Institute of Economic Growth, and supported by Tata Trust. The report ranks every constituency by five indicators on stunting, wasting, underweight, low birth weight and anaemia amongst children.
Most surprising, India’s women and child development minister, who is supposed to ensure that no child in the country remains stunted and the scourge of anaemia is removed, is virtually at the bottom of the heap as far as her own constituency, Pilibhit, goes. Maneka Gandhi ranks 14 th from the bottom in anaemia. This when the government has brought huge energy into its social sector programming, particularly the Poshan Abhiyan to eliminate malnutrition, which was launched last year by the prime minister in Jhunjhunu.
It would be unfair to single out Maneka Gandhi. For the story of all the big daddies and equally powerful mummies of Indian politics is an eye opener. It may surprise the PM to know that his own constituency of Varanasi is somewhere in the middle, at 250, (543 being the best and 1 being the worst), as far as anaemia goes (59.5 per cent). But it ranks 124 for child stunting at 43 per cent, 5 per cent more than the national average. In India, three out of five children are still anaemic, and 38 per cent are stunted. “Stunting” can cause irreversible damage to a child unless treated early.
Rahul Gandhi fares worse. Amethi has 65 per cent anaemia, and ranks 161. It is 113 in stunting (44 per cent). Mulayam Singh Yadav’s constituency Azamgarh has 63 per cent anaemia and 40 per cent stunting. Home Minister Rajnath Singh also does not come out smelling of roses. Lucknow is way down, 58 from the bottom, with almost three out of four children in his constituency being anaemic. Amongst the 20 worst constituencies for child stunting, 11 are from UP, eight from Bihar and one from Jharkhand.
Equally surprising is the record of well-known women MPs. Sushma Swaraj gave a matchless performance at the recent meeting of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries). But her constituency of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh has 67 per cent anaemia. Sumitra Mahajan has presided over the Lok Sabha for five years, not an easy task, but Indore, which she has represented for years, has 73.5 per cent anaemia and is 42 from the bottom. Kirron Kher has swayed millions with her incredible film performances, but her constituency of Chandigarh also has more than 71 per cent anaemia. Uma Bharti was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh but has not been able to tackle 75.7 per cent anaemia in Jhansi. Neither can Sonia Gandhi, with 61.7 per cent anaemia in Rae Bareilly and a 220 ranking.
It is interesting that some younger MPs who have raised the issue of child malnutrition from time to time in the last few years, have fared better, possibly because of a sensitivity to the issue. Jay Panda, who recently joined the BJP, ranked 525 (for tackling anaemia), in other words in the top 20. Supriya Sule, Poonam Mahajan, Sushmita Dev, Gaurav Gogoi, Anurag Thakur are among those who have done better than many of their counterparts.
Interestingly enough, Asaduddin Owaisi’s constituency of Hyderabad ranks 21 for having only 21 per cent levels of stunting. It made me recall a conversation in the constituency during the recent assembly elections in the state. When asked what was her dream for her granddaughters, I was stunned when an old woman — she said she was 100 — said she wanted “taleem” for them, and “for them to be able to stand on their own feet”.
It is the constituency of Kollam which is the top of the pops, and its MP, N K Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), is the hero of this story. His is the best constituency (rank 543) both in terms of tackling anaemia (down to less than 18 per cent) and stunting (15 per cent).
And it is Kerala which has emerged as the best-performing state. Surprisingly, and contrary to popular perception, it is not Tamil Nadu, which has over the years been known for its mid-day meals and social welfare programmes. Amongst the best 20 constituencies in the country which deserve a medal for having tackled the difficult problem of stunting amongst children, 15 are from Kerala and Shashi Tharoor’s constituency of Thiruvananthapuram has been ranked as the 10th best. This may be because Kerala is known for its almost cent percent literacy and a high status for women, and child malnutrition has everything to do with women’s health, education and well-being.
The moral of the story, then, is that men and women who formulate policy in Parliament, have not paid enough attention to those very issues in their own backyards. For accountability, there is a need now to consider manifestos for individual Lok Sabha constituencies. And a report card at the end of five years, by credible agencies, to enable the voters to make up their minds.
Polls will come and go. But the harsh figures about our children will continue to rankle. They are a reminder that the future of India depends not so much on political rhetoric but on how quickly we can eliminate problems like stunting and anaemia, which affect a child’s cognitive and brain development, and her productivity and potential. But for that to happen, our parliamentarians will also have to make an inviolable commitment to the children in their constituencies.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 16, 2019, with the title ‘A stunting reality’. The writer is a senior journalist