India never had an infant survival rate to boast of, and the latest study conducted jointly by the Central government’s department for women and children and Unicef has reaffirmed the country’s low ranking in the matter of infant and maternal mortality rates. The count of infant deaths is bad enough, given the fact that India is well into the first decade of the 21st century and warnings about high infant mortality have been reiterated with increasing emphasis since the Seventies. Out of every 1,000 children born, 70 do not survive their first year and 95 die before they are five. The report makes clear that this is the inevitable result of the average state of health of young children and of pregnant mothers. Most babies have a low birthweight, nearly half the children below three remain underweight and many are short for their age. This, added to the high number of mothers dying during or immediately after giving birth, makes the picture devastating. And shameful. Malnutrition, poverty and lack of education are still the most obvious enemies, and successive governments have not been able to tackle them to any great effect. Maternal deaths are lower in states where women have better education and enjoy better socio-economic conditions. Teenage mothers, frequent pregnancies, home-based deliveries and general neglect are killers where women and newborn babies are concerned.
The root cause of the apparent failure lies in the low value accorded to women and children in Indian society. Reports such as this one are ultimately indictments of an unchanging mindset. According to this, health, education and the right over one’s own body are simply not things women are entitled to: these pose the danger of the woman suddenly acquiring a mind. Corrective measures, even when well-intentioned and locally effective, turn out to be little more than new icing on a cake gone off, simply because attitudes to women are yet to change and the importance of children’s welfare is far from being recognized. The cycle remains viciously closed. Undernourishment damages the nation’s human wealth, by causing conditions such as partial blindness among children. At the same time, the insecurity about children’s lives among the less privileged remains one of the reasons for the failure of population control measures. Taking the report seriously would reap rich rewards, but as things are, that seems a distant possibility.