Social inequality the real culprit in India’s ‘shameful’ malnutrition problem

By Stephanie Nolen

It’s the grim statistic that just won’t budge: new child malnutrition numbers are out for India, and there is no good news to be had.

The exhaustive door-to-door survey covered a fifth of India’s children and found that 42.3 per cent of children under the age of five are underweight for their age, 58.8 per cent are stunted and 11.4 per cent are so severely underfed as to be considered “wasted.”

These figures are significant in part because some Indian nationalists reject the findings of international organizations that have warned that the child malnutrition situation is not improving even as the economy has grown at nearly 10 per cent per year over the last decade.

In fact, about as many Indian children are malnourished now as were at the beginning of the economic liberalization period two decades ago: the number has declined at best by two or three per cent.

One person who has refused to let the malnutrition figures get lost in the gloss of “India Shining” is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who chose to personally release this report and called the figures “a national shame,” saying “despite impressive growth in our GDP, the level of undernutrition in the country is unacceptably high.”

Prime Minister Singh noted that the policy tools employed by government to date have not had the impact envisioned. The report findings suggest that the persistent problems of sclerotic bureaucracy and corruption continue to hamper those policy initiatives – for example, almost every village surveyed had an anganwadi community health centre. But while these are supposed to distribute dried rations to children in need, and feed those children cooked meals once a day, only half of the centres actually had the food supplies they were supposed to receive.

As the Globe reported in 2009, the reasons why India continues to have such high malnutrition rates have less to do with levels of poverty than they do with persistent social inequality, particularly between men and women.

The reason, according to research from the International Food Policy Research Institute, that many much poorer African nations nevertheless have better-nourished children than India does is that in those African states, women have much more autonomy in terms of personal mobility, work and household spending, and as a consequence, their children eat better. A child under five is almost twice as likely to be underweight in India as is a child in sub-Saharan Africa.

This survey also drew out the explicit connections between malnutrition and other aspects of development such as education and sanitation. It found that while nearly half of children of illiterate mothers are malnourished, only a third of children of mothers who had 10 or more years of education are.

The survey compared households in the best-performing districts of the most developed states with the worst districts in the poorest states; in the best districts, half of all mothers said their family members washed their hands with soap after they used the toilet, while only a fifth of mothers in the worst districts said they did so – even though almost all households said they had soap. Chronic diarrheal disease is a key cause of malnutrition.

The Globe and Mail, January 20, 2012

Posted on: January 20, 2012


India’s exploited child cotton workers

By Humphrey Hawksley

The noise was deafening and air in the factory in northern Gujarat was so thick with cotton dust it was like a snowstorm at night.

Women and girls, some no more than 10 or 11, fed machines with raw cotton picked from the nearby fields.

It is a process known as ginning – one end of a commercial supply chain that ends up as clothes and textiles in high street shops around the world. Globally, annual revenues from the industry are measured in the trillions of dollars.

Many household-name retailers concede they do not know exactly how the cotton they use is farmed and processed. Yet, for years, labour activists here have campaigned for their help.

“The workers’ lives are terrible,” said Jignesh Mevani, an activist who was our guide. “They are not paid the minimum wage. There are no safety precautions. There are many children.”

Filming openly, children were easy to find in both the ginning factories and the cotton fields.

One was Kali Gamar, wearing a worn yellow dress, her arms covered in scratches from the cotton bushes. She thought she was 10, but wasn’t sure.

Her expression was flat, her eyes dull as, almost robotically, she prised open cotton buds, one after the other. She was with her older sister, Ashi, who said she was 20.

“We came here four or five months ago from Rajastan,” said Ashi. “Now we live here. The work is hard. We don’t know where our parents are. They are working somewhere.”

In one of the ginning factories, we found Versha and Pryanka. They were both 11 years old, far away from home and too shy or frightened to speak.

An adult worker, Gauri, explained they had been sent there through a labour agent by their parents.

“They came some months back,” she said. “They don’t get paid. The money must go straight to their parents.”

Some estimates put the number of cotton child workers in India as high as half a million.

“A third of the workers may be children,” says Sudhir Katiyar, who runs the campaigning organisation Prayas Centre for Labor Research and Action.

“Children are at every stage of the process, seeding cotton, picking it and ginning and beyond, too,” he says.

Mr Katiyar refers to the cotton dust in the ginning factories as “the horror of the white cloud”, as it can cause lung disease at an early age.

By law, he says, masks and safety equipment should be provided to all workers. Children should not work until they are 16.

There have been cases of them falling asleep through exhaustion and suffocating in the piles of raw cotton.

Workers are paid just over $2 (£1.30) a day, when they should be paid $7 for a 12-hour shift, Mr Katiyar insists.

From the ginning factories, the cotton is spun into thread from which textiles are made.

It is at this stage that the supply chain becomes a completely different world.

Mandhana Industries in Tarapur, two hours from Mumbai, is a supplier to many European brands.

Its plant is clean and modern, with an abundance of posters promoting good working practices. Staff wear protective masks and clothing.

“We have a social programme,” says Mandhana president Ajay Prakash Bhatnagar. “We have doctors and health care. We take care of everything.

“I think this is why we get so many repeat orders again and again. Our customers are happy with the way we operate.”

Usually companies like Mandhana track their supply chain to the spinning mills, while high street retailers track back to their immediate suppliers. Little or no scrutiny is made of the ginning factories and cotton fields.

None of the retailers we contacted agreed to be interviewed on this issue.

But Arcadia, owner of outlets such as Top Shop, BhS and Miss Selfridge, issued a statement saying: “We are committed to ensuring that the workers in our suppliers’ supply chains are treated fairly.

“When customers buy our goods they must be sure that they have been produced under acceptable conditions.”

Marks and Spencer said it did not break down what percentage of its raw cotton was traceable and guaranteed to be free of unacceptable labour practices.

“All our suppliers must adhere to our ethical standards as a condition of working with us,” it said in a statement. “We do not tolerate abuse of these standards.”

The company says, however, that it intends to be able to trace the source of its cotton by 2015.

Child labour has been reported in all the major cotton growing countries – China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan and Turkey.

In response to the BBC findings in Gujarat, the British government said businesses were encouraged to remain vigilant about the work conditions for products they buy from overseas.

BBC News, January 19, 2012

Posted on: January 19, 2012


Voice of Survivors: Human Trafficking Prevention Month

By Rani Hong, UN.GIFT Special Advisor

Every day, in every nation on the planet, children are sold and bonded into slavery. Thousands of children. I know, I was one of them.

When I was seven years old, a woman approached my family promising to give me a good education and a better life. My mother agreed because, she was told, she could visit me on a regular basis close to our home. But instead of giving me a better life, this well-respected woman in our community turned around and sold me to a man in a bordering state.

I was taken from my family in India to a place I didn’t know. A place with strange people and a strange language. My trafficker, Paul, was in the business of children. He bought and sold us, exploiting our vulnerability and innocence, forcing us to work as maids, servants, and in brick and cement factories. He ran an “orphanage” that was registered with the government as a humanitarian charity, but which instead served as a barracks for children he trafficked, including me.

I remember crying for my mother. Paul told me that I never would see her again. “She is dead,” he said.

My home, my identity, and, most importantly, my dreams and aspirations were lost. The world around me was shattered into pieces. My small body endured beatings and torture. Day in and day out, in that poverty stricken village in Southern India, I cried for someone to rescue me. Despite all of my tears, no one answered my cry.

By the time I was eight, my physical condition and emotional state were dire. I was near death. No longer of any value to Paul, he sold me into illegal adoption. I was adopted by an American woman who thought she was getting a legitimately orphaned girl. She brought me to live with her in Washington, where I had all the privileges of American life. Through her love, I began to find stability, healing, and a sense of personal freedom.

Today, at least 27 million men, women, and children are enslaved across the globe—m ore than at any time in history. Modern-day slavery and human trafficking manifest themselves in many forms, from forced labor to sex trafficking, but each is alike in that it strips a person of their fundamental and inalienable right to human freedom. Sometimes hidden in the dark corners of our globalized world and at other times occurring in plain sight, modern-day slavery and human trafficking are legal nowhere but present in every country across the globe.

Twenty-one years after being trafficked, I traveled back to India. There, I saw my birth mother in a hotel for the first time since we were forced apart. I listened to her tell the story of losing a child. I heard her pain and devastation. And I resolved to dedicate my life to stopping the modern-day slave trade.

President Barack Obama has proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. It provides all of us with an opportunity to look within and beyond our own lives. But the issue of human trafficking is massive in scope and often overwhelming to consider. How can one person possibly impact such an immense, seemingly intractable global problem? You can start by becoming educated about the issue—including in your own community. Next, be willing to say something. Ask Congress to reauthorize the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Fight for anti-trafficking legislation in your state. And simply be willing to stand up and use your voice to say that slavery is wrong. If thousands of voices rise up the same way, they will surely be loud enough to end this tragedy in our time.

Huffington Post, January 12, 2012

Posted on: January 12, 2012


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