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India must address the issue of stunted growth now

Possibly the dedication of the political class that ushered in the country’s freedom has lulled people into believing that visionary leaders will forever pull India out of trouble

Gulf News

India faces a crisis of epic proportions. It has the highest number of stunted children in the world — a staggering 60 million. Yet, neither of the two prime ministerial candidates — the over-ambitious Narendra Modi or the under ambitious Rahul Gandhi — thought it fit to speak about them. If ever there was an opportunity to grab the eyeballs of the nation it was now, for they were on prime time television. Instead, both rambled handing out platitudes.

Modi went further by touting the country’s demographic dividend displaying ignorance, or worse, callousness, for what use is a youth bulge if they are malformed? A young labour pool should normally propel a nation forward, but that would be fool’s gold given the acuteness of the crisis. India is staring at a crippling disability; the country may well be on the way to becoming a stunted nation.

Civil society is largely ignorant of the enormity of this ongoing tragedy; their predictable reaction will be to brush aside this horrendous statistic because their own experience is the opposite. Their children are taller and healthier than what they were at their age and therefore dismiss all this talk as an act of Nature. Put it down to an aberration, a genetic defect in parts of the population — much easier that way to fire wall itself from reality.

This heartbreaking development, however, is entirely man-made and stoppable. Conventional wisdom until recently blamed malnourishment for stunting. It now appears poor sanitation practices is at the heart of this nightmare and malnourishment is only a secondary cause. Lack of toilets and the custom of defecating in the open are fuelling this ticking time bomb.

Frighteningly, this is no longer a rural boondocks issue. It is impacting an ever widening circle of young Indians. It is a clear and present danger stalking even the privileged. Dan Spears from Princeton University and a visiting researcher at the Delhi School of Economics has written extensively on this matter and it is chilling to read him. His findings make grim reading and it is morally unconscionable of the state to let this happen.

Yet, the India story which glorifies India’s achievements is real enough even if the narrative has lost its thread of late. It is baffling that a nation with an enviable space programme, an acknowledged knowledge industry power, a state that can boast of some success even in the social sector — eradication of Polio being one — has let this calamity happen. Indeed, can anyone make sense of India’s maddeningly slow and confusing approach to issues that require instant action. How does it posses that unique ability to triumph and fail abysmally at the same time?

The media must debate these troubling questions and shape public opinion. Sadly, it has abdicated its role barring a few exceptions. Broadcast media, which has an enormous leverage to galvanise civil society, has simply refused to step up except when it sees a need to ramp up its TRPs; run a ghastly story on caste wars or serve up dollops of a corruption scandal to work up middle class rage with no serious attempt to bring about real change. Indeed, the very issues that they chose to discuss are those that beset the middle class.

But why blame the media when aspirants to high office like Modi and Rahul, with the spotlight on them, waste their opportunities? Media’s stand has been that its audience has no stomach for this type of reportage except in small doses. They are a slave to TRPs, but what about our two worthies who claim their mission is to serve India. They wish us to believe they are beholden to none except to India’s cause. Most Indians will trash that as sanctimonious humbug and yet do nothing. Why?

The complex reality of India is at the heart of this complacency. Very few Indians have the patience or the inclination to understand the country’s debilitating contradictions. The middle class does a cop-out by blaming poor political leadership, overlooking the fact that it is this very smug self righteousness that allows unscrupulous elements to come to power. Possibly, the dedication of the political class that ushered in the country’s freedom has lulled them into believing that visionary leaders will forever pull India out of trouble.

The truth is that the citizen has simply abdicated his role in nation-building. The privileged have a special responsibility. Mahatma Gandhi propounded the utopian idea of trusteeship — an economic and social philosophy of pay-back by the wealthy.

Knowing human nature, that is unlikely to ever happen except on rare occasions, but public service initiatives like Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s reality show, Satyamev Jayate, can make a difference. The endeavour should be put in place and an outreach programme to recruit and employ the ordinary citizen in the onerous task of nation building. The idea of India is difficult to grasp. Historian Ramachandra Guha says: “The republic of India is the most reckless political experiment in human history.” Let it not be forgotten that citizenship to this republic comes at a price!

Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.