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Little India as starved as Ethiopia

New Delhi, May 3: India can boast of the second fastest growing economy in the world after China, but in terms of malnutrition among children, India today found itself ranked with Ethiopia.

About 57 million children in India are malnourished and make up a third of the world’s 146 million undernourished children, said a new Unicef report released today. India’s child malnutrition rate of 47 per cent is the same as that in Ethiopia, it said.

The report said South Asia has “staggeringly high” levels of underweight children and India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan together account for half of the world’s undernourished children under five.

“Malnutrition is the underlying cause of half of the 2.1 million annual child deaths in India,” said Cecilio Adorna, Unicef’s representative in India. “It’s not the lack of food, but lack of knowledge that is hindering progress,” Adorna said.

According to Unicef, half of all children under the age of three in India are underweight and a quarter are born with a low birth weight.

The report also said that one in three women in India is underweight and is therefore, at the risk of delivering babies with low weight. “Correct breast feeding and complementary feeding could have a huge impact,” Adorna said.

Experts say malnutrition could be reduced by making available good maternal care, ensuring that infants are exclusively breast fed for the first six months, and adding complementary foods after six months while infants are still breast fed.

While most infants in India are initially breast fed, only 37 per cent of infants are exclusively breast fed for four months. And, Unicef said, less than half the population follows good child care and feeding practices in India.

Adorna said that while there is evidence in India of “strong political will and commitment” to tackle malnutrition, “the slip between the cup and the lip is implementation and accountability”.

Malnutrition in India declined by an annual 0.8 per cent between 1992 and 1998. While the report has acknowledged this as “modest improvements”, it warned that the progress was “insufficient”.

But several community-based projects, including one in Bengal, show that significant improvements are possible through appropriate collaborative efforts involving state governments and international agencies.

The “Ken Parbo Na” project in Bengal, for instance, spread across four districts ' South 24-Parganas, South Dinajpur, Murshidabad and Purulia ' helped reduce malnutrition from 59 per cent to 48 per cent in three years.

The project involved teaching mothers of malnourished children techniques to prepare complementary food and how to breast feed.

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