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In India’s Bihar State, economic crisis hits the poorest of the poor

UNICEF Image: India, economy
A malnourished girl sits in her home in Sullineabad Village as her mother prepares food.

By Sam Taylor and Sarah Crowe

BIHAR, India, 29 May 2009 – As the sun sinks into the horizon over the Kosi River in India's Bihar State, the scene is almost idyllic. Wooden ferries putter across the river as young boys wash buffalo and splash around in the shallows.

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But in September of last year, the Kosi River, known locally as 'the sorrow of Bihar', caused human misery on a massive scale after its banks burst across the border in Nepal. The river flooded huge swathes of Bihar, displacing around 3 million people and destroying thousands of homes.

Struggling to survive

Today, this state – already one of the poorest in India – has been visited by a new cascade of calamities.

The global financial crisis has hit those on the margins the hardest. Flood victims were still trying to pick up the pieces of their destroyed lives when they started to feel the impact of the economic downturn that is now ricocheting around South Asia. Bihar is amongst the very poorest of the poor northern states of India, and even in normal times more than half of its children are undernourished.

Millions of Biharis rely on jobs in the Gulf states or elsewhere. Those who cannot afford to migrate overseas often leave the state to find work in India’s once-booming economic centres.

UNICEF Image: India, economy
Chandika Devi, 30, sits with her one-year-old baby girl, Parvati Kumari, while father-in-law Gulaisama, 70, takes a rest from the day’s heat center in Sullineabad Village.

Piled on top of the hardship caused by the floods, rising food prices and the economic crisis are adding massive pressure to families who were already struggling to survive.

Victims of recession
Chandra Dev Poddar is the father of one such family. He stands soulfully looking at the remains of his simple mud house in Bhaddi village, which was almost entirely destroyed in the floods. Just as he was overcoming this tragedy, he fell victim to the global recession.

“I had been working in a shoe factory in Delhi for the last three months but was laid off,” he says. “There were no orders and they had to close the factory.”

Without land or livestock, Mr. Poddar has no idea how he can provide for his family. Higher food prices mean some parents are feeding their children less.

“A tiny pack of salt used to be three rupees. Now it’s five. Mustard oil is now very expensive at 80 rupees a packet,” says another parent, Pawa Devi, as she shops at a small market stall in Sullineabad village. “My children rarely eat anything other than salt and bread,” she adds.

Alarming malnutrition levels
In the aftermath of the Bihar floods, UNICEF assessed the levels of malnutrition among children in the camps for those displaced by the disaster. The rates were alarmingly high.

Around 8 per cent of children were suffering from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that requires immediate intervention.

“The flood was a real eye-opener about the levels of severe malnutrition,” says Dr. Tariq Ahmed, a medical officer at the Malnutrition Treatment Centre in Saharsa town, a facility for severely malnourished children with medical complications.

UNICEF Image: India, economy
Malnourished children take a morning meal of rice and dal provided by the government-funded supplementary nutrition program at the Angand Wadi centre.

As part of the flood response, UNICEF enabled 146 community centres to provide therapeutic care to 1,600 severely malnourished children between the ages of six months and five years.
Therapeutic food makes a difference
For father of eight Mahadev Sada in Sullineabad village, the packets of RUTF have made a real difference for his children.

“I am completely helpless,” says Mr. Sada, who works when he can as a labourer in a brick kiln. “My two children who are malnourished are having RUTF, and that has definitely helped improve their lives.”

In the same village, Chandula Devi, whose youngest of four children is receiving the therapeutic food, has also seen improvements for her child.

“Before my youngest child started taking the packets of RUTF, he was sick all the time,” she recalls. “He had very little appetite and never wanted to leave my arms. After the RUTF, he is much, much better. He plays a lot more and is more active. I wish my other children had had the chance to take it, as they would have grown up fitter.”




29 April 2009:
UNICEF’s Sarah Crowe reports on the effects of economic downturn and rising food prices in India’s Bihar State.
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