With this many children suffering from a long-term lack of nutritious food, the average height of a two-and-a-half year-old Indian girl is 6cm shorter (a boy 5.8cm shorter) than the healthy standard height of 84.7cm, as calculated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Not only are these stunted children left physically weaker for life, the charity highlights the severe consequences on their mental development. And that’s assuming the children make it into adulthood. For every 1000 live births, 66 children die in India before their fifth birthday (WHO 2009), many from the effects of malnutrition.
However shocking the statistics, sometimes it’s hard to grasp the terrible situation facing millions of Indian mothers, unless we read of their experiences. In an article to accompany the Save The Children report, the BBC speaks to one mother living in the slums of New Delhi. Nasreen Khatoun’s husband is out of work and every day she describes as a struggle to feed her family. Nasreen has already lost two of her children because of malnutrition. Her two-year old daughter was the first to die. Nasreen describes how the little girl “was just skin and bones” and “seemed to have dried up”. Later, she lost another two-year old, this time a boy, who was too weak to fight off pneumonia. Now Nasreen fights to keep her remaining two children alive on just one meal a day. With rising food prices, the mother simply says “I borrow, I even lie to somehow get money to feed them. Poverty breaks you down but you should be hopeful and strong”.
A moving account about similar feelings of hopelessness among India’s poor is contained in the Pulitzer prize-winning book ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’. Written by Katherine Boo, a New York journalist, the book gives a detailed account of what life is like for some of the slum-dwellers in Mumbai. As in the best articles, the author paints a vivid and stirring picture by focusing on individuals. The journalist interviewed over 160 people for her account and used more than 3,000 public records (with India’s right to information law) to track what policemen, hospital, morgue and court officials had to say about the people she followed. These include portraits of youngsters living in the slums who survive by thieving and scavenging. The journalist describes how many of these young Indians die young.
The sense hopelessness felt by the poor of Mumbai seems at odds with the fact India is now classed as a middle-income country. The author concludes that while for some there are flickers of hope that a better future may lie in store, for many the “unpredictability of daily life has a way of grinding down individual promise”. Without a change to corrupt systems and mismanagement among India’s communities, as one girl in the slum puts it, despite all efforts a poor person can make, “the world doesn’t move in our favour”.