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Food crisis ravages India’s poorest children

© UNICEF video
Malnourished Indian children eat lunch at the nutritional rehabilitation centre in Shivpuri. For most it will be the only meal of the day.

By Sarah Crowe

GURAVAL VILLAGE, Madhya Pradesh, India, 9 June 2008 – In the pre-monsoon heat, the Akushwah family gathered under a Neem tree on their most important mission since a boy was born to the family a year ago.

As the group waited for an auto rickshaw at the side of the main road from Bhopal to Delhi, they talked excitedly about how they had saved for a full year to fill their large steel bucket with a feast of chapattis, lentil dahl and channa, or chick peas.

If not for the huge food price increases that have hit India’s poorest families the hardest, it would have taken them half that time. The Akushwahs live on around $1 a day, but that didn’t stop the family from taking a taxi to a bright blue temple, where they offered the feast to the gods in thanks for their baby boy.

Even in a crisis, centuries-old traditions and beliefs die hard.

Effects of high food prices

“After three girls, we are so thankful for this boy. We don’t buy medicines and we had to cut back on our food because things are so expensive,” said the father, Badarinath Akushwa. “But we know that if we feed the gods, that will be our medicine.”

Despite a robust economy with 9 per cent annual growth in recent years, inflation and the food crisis in India now threaten to erode many of the gains made here.

© UNICEF video
Anxious mothers bring their malnourished children to the nutritional rehabilitation centre in Shivpuri, one of 100 in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

In order to address both the complex situation causing high rates of child malnutrition in India, the retail giant IKEA is supporting UNICEF India with an $80 million package of health, nutrition, and water and sanitation programmes over the next five years.

In the state of Madhya Pradesh, which has the highest child mortality and child malnutrition rates in the country, government supplementary programmes are under threat. Community workers have complained that they can no longer give severely malnourished children a healthy, balanced diet out of the 2 Rupees per day that they receive from government for each child.

UNICEF sets up nutrition centres

Even at the best of times, nearly half the children under the age of three in Madhya Pradesh are undernourished. Two years ago, in response to a severe drought, UNICEF helped the government set up a 100 nutrition rehabilitation centres throughout the state. The monsoon rains have continued to fail, and now with the food crisis that failure has created a 'perfect storm' affecting the most marginalized children – especially those from excluded castes and tribes.

At the Kalyani nutrition centre in Shivpuri, anxious mothers take turns weighing their babies, who are barely big enough to tip the scales. One three-month-old baby boy weighed in at exactly 2 kg. And whereas malnourished children used to be brought to the centre by government transport, now a steady stream of mothers are bringing in their babies on their own.

“Before, we used to have to go and find those babies and bring them here. Now the mothers are motivated to come, because their children are suffering more,” said health worker Dinesh Khanna.

Families cope with stark choices

For Sunita Adivasi’s family, wheat stocks are running out. With the price of other staples such as rice having almost doubled in six months, she is left to make stark choices.

“Only my husband is able to work and we’re seven in the family, so we cannot feed and clothe our children properly,” she said. “We’re really very worried about things, we don’t know how we are going to cope.”

Sunita’s son is two years old but cannot walk. At the community centre, he and his sisters relish their midday meal. It’s all they’ll get, and they’re not alone. This year, 72 per cent of children in the village of Guraval are malnourished, compared to 60 per cent last year.

“While there is no change in the families’ income, the food prices have gone up incredibly,” UNICEF Nutrition Officer for Madhya Pradesh Vandana Agurwal said, adding that in some villages the prevalence of child malnutrition is as high as 80 per cent.




May 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on how the food crisis is affecting India’s poorest children.
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