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Do we hear the curse of the dying children?

Last updated on: October 12, 2009 10:54 IST

A bloody confrontation with the Naxalites will not solve the problem of governance failure in the poorest states of the country.

Sometimes the solution to the most entrenched problems can be quite simple -- as simple as telling the rural poor to boil their drinking water to prevent disease and death. All that it requires is a clear focus on the problem, some common sense and an unswerving commitment to setting matters right. You don't need much money to solve the chronic problems of the destitute or to win their hearts as the Naxalites or Maoists have demonstrated in the vast swathes of poverty and neglect in the rural heartland of the country.

As Kobad Ghandy, the arrested Maoist ideologue, revealed last month, party workers would take extra care to improve health facilities in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, where officialdom has rarely set foot. "Wherever we work, we tell the tribal people to boil drinking water. It has reduced diseases and death by 50 percent," he said in a radio interview. "Child mortality decreased because we have managed to empower women to an extent."

Boiled drinking water, if you think about it, is the prime solution to what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calls the gravest threat facing the country: left-wing extremism.

As the countdown begins to a massive armed operation against the Naxalites, specifically those in Chhattisgarh, you wonder what all that sophisticated weaponry and formidable forces that Home Minister P Chidambaram is putting together will do to make up for the lack of governance and development.

To whip up consent for its November offensive, which some newspaper reports claim will involve 75,000 security personnel, apart from a formidable arsenal, the government has been releasing several sets of figures to prove the seriousness of the problem.  According to last month's update from the home ministry, left-wing extremism affects over 2,000 police station areas in 223 districts in 20 states. If there were 1,591 incidents of Naxalite violence resulting in 721 deaths last year, by August end this year, the figure was close to 600.

Yet, Singh barely took notice of a series of devastating reports that revealed the extent to which his government has failed in an area which has the most profound consequences for the country's future: the health and well-being of its children. Reports from reputed international NGO Save the Children, Unicef and the World Bank have all been sharply critical of the failure of governance in health and education that has left Indian children way behind their counterparts in Sri Lanka, Nepal and even Bangladesh.

Two million children below the age of five die every year in India, which means one every 15 seconds. To the country's everlasting shame, it must be noted that this figure is the highest in the world. Of these, more than half die in the first month of their birth and over 4,00,000 within the first 24 hours, says Save the Children.

Yet another report from the Institute of Development Studies of the UK took the government to task for its failure to check the extraordinary levels of malnutrition and warned that new funding would not prevent the loss of another generation.

The latest IDS Bulletin noted that from 1980 to 2005, India's real Gross Domestic Profit per capita grew by 3.95 percent per year, yet between 1992 and 2006, the percentage of underweight infants under three dropped only marginally from 52 to 46 percent. "Normally we expect economic growth and improved nutrition to go hand-in-hand, but at the current rate, India will not reach the Millennium Development Goal -- to reduce the number of people suffering from hunger by 50 percent by 2015-until 2043," writes Lawrence Haddad, IDS director. "By failing to reach this target, the Indian government is condemning a further generation to brain damage, poorer education and early death that result from malnutrition."

The stasis of governance is thrown up in sharp relief when India's record is compared with those of its smaller and much poorer neighbours. Bangladesh, by increasing the coverage of immunisation, providing vitamin A supplements and promoting simple remedies like oral rehydration therapy, is on track to meet its MDG. Even Nepal, despite the political turmoil that has engulfed it over the past six years, has been successful in bringing down the child mortality rate by a spectacular 50 per cent. It's an equally impressive showing by Sri Lanka, which has been fighting a bloody civil war for decades.

Naturally, international organisations are asking why the Manmohan Singh government is unable to get to grips with the problem. Haddad, for one, appears at a loss to explain the dismal outcomes here. "The persistence of extraordinary levels of child malnutrition in India in the midst of a whirlwind of economic growth-maintained even in the midst of the global recession-must seem like a curse," he says.

If it's a curse, then the Maoists are bent on undoing it. As they have discovered, it doesn't cost much to save the lives of children and the vulnerable sections of the population, a lesson that Ghandy and his kind appear to have learned from international experience. Poor countries, such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Peru and the Philippines, that are on track to meet their MDGs have exploded the myth that the costs of reducing newborn and child mortality are high, and according to Thomas Chandy, chief executive of Save the Children, the crux of the issue is that there is no real pressure on the government to act.

But left-wing extremists have stepped into the breach, and it's not surprising that "despite its sanguinary nature, the movement manages to retain the support of a section of the tribals and the poorest of the poor in many areas," as the prime minister acknowledged at a meeting of police chiefs in Delhi. But how the government acts in coming days will have serious implications for the kind of society India is hoping to build.

Will the nuanced strategy that Singh was advocating till recently give way to a bloody confrontation in which the poorest of the poor will pay the biggest price? He needs to remember the dying children.

Image: Children of tea workers wait for food at a closed tea garden in Jalpaiguri | Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

Latha Jishnu in New Delhi