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IT IS a sad reflection on the mentality of the Indian bureaucracy that it believes that paperwork are of a greater concern than a child's life.

Written by Coomi Kapoor | New Delhi |
August 30, 2009 9:41:56 pm

IT IS a sad reflection on the mentality of the Indian bureaucracy that it believes that paperwork and approvals,which usually result in needless delays,are of a greater concern than a child’s life.

Earlier this year,the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare pulled up Unicef for supplying Ready to Eat Therapeutic Food (RUTF) to severely malnourished children in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh without first obtaining the government’s permission. Without the life-saving food,undoubtedly,a large number of children would have succumbed to various infections. The victims,who suffered from the medical condition known as Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM),were from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. The Bihar children were uprooted from their homes because of the Kosi floods,the emaciated Madhya Pradesh victims were tribals who had low weight and suffered from diarrhea.

The ministry,far from showing any appreciation for Unicef’s humanitarian act,took strong exception to the international body’s intervention and threw the rulebook at it.

It even demanded that Unicef restore to the country the $2.4 million spent on the supply of the RUTF although it is debatable whether the international body needs to obtain clearance from the government for each one of its programmes in India.

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More than 50 years after Independence,our bureaucrats have a nitpicking mindset,which allows minor regulations to cloud the larger picture. The attitude of the media and some NGOs towards Unicef’s initiative,too,was an eye opener.

A section of the media lapped up the leaks from the ministry to make out that a reputed international body was guilty of some sort of fraud.

They even produced quotes from certain NGOs with a vested interest expressing shock and indignation at Unicef’s actions.

The argument put forward to belittle Unicef’s efforts is curious. Why was it necessary for Unicef to import the RUTF instead of going in for locally made food? There is a school of thought which wanted to make a case that community based treatment rooted in locally available foods was a better option than imported nutrition supplements. The old,contrived and dishonest argument that it was a case of pushing packaged food was trotted out once again.

Once the only treatment prescribed for SAM was hospitalisation. But a little over a decade ago,there was a major breakthrough in treatment,thanks to an intervention known as Plumpy Nut,which is a high energy paste. Supplied in a toothpaste-like container,Plumpy Nut allows the child to suck constantly at a mixture made of milk,peanut butter without water. The big advantage is that it has a long shelf life,it can be stored without refrigeration and it has a very high fat content. In fact,WHO has recommended it as a life saving protocol and product. All over the world,a supply of Plumpy Nut along with regular visits to health centres is considered the best treatment for SAM.

So far no suitable alternative to Plumpy Nut has been found,either in India or in the rest of the world. No other product has been tested with so much rigour. True,there have been promising results in finding locally produced substitutes in Bangalore and Jaipur,but further tests have to be done if these products are to be put to use on a large scale.

Nearly eight million children in India suffer from SAM,which will lead to an early death of around 1.5 million children.

Rather than wasting precious time in debating and quibbling over what is the best strategy available,surely a proven remedy should be encouraged in the meantime. At stake are the lives and well being of hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children.

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