DON'T LEAVE ANY STONE UNTURNED - The people should work with the government to bring down India’s infant mortality rate

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  • Published 29.10.09

In July 2006, in a village in Haryana, a five-year-old fell into a deep, narrow pit left uncovered by workers. While Prince lay inside the pit, an entire nation stayed glued to their television sets to watch the rescue drama. The chief minister of Haryana, who visited the spot, said: “The administration is leaving no stone unturned to bring the child out safely, which is our first priority. We are even in touch with experts in London and Holland.” Expressing the wishes of millions of Indians, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was hopeful that the boy would be rescued. Indeed, he was.

Prince was able to stir the conscience of the nation, and the State made it its priority to bring him out safely. Compare Prince’s case to the following statistics. Every 15 seconds, a child under five dies — 5,000 every day and 2 million every year. These hapless children have not fallen into a pit like Prince, and so do not need the advanced engineering skills of the Indian Air Force to pull them out. These children die of diseases and conditions that are easily preventable and treatable. But, unfortunately, the State services do not reach them.

India has the largest number of children under five dying every year. This is a scandal and a shame. India is far off from the Millennium Development Goal 4, which says that child mortality will be reduced by two-third by 2015. Our poorer neighbour, Bangladesh, has gone ahead of us and will meet its target for MDG 4.

While the fact of these deaths is indefensible, there have been attempts to explain or, worse, to trivialize them. The essence of the defence falls into two categories. One, the task is difficult, too expensive — it will never succeed. Two, India has a population problem; the children are not worth saving. The first argument falls flat when countries such as Bangladesh, Peru, Philippines and Nepal have achieved the goal without the economic might and the GDP growth that have found India a place in the influential Group of 20. It is also interesting to look into some of our own success stories in the states of Kerala, Goa and Mizoram, which are definitely not the booming states.

Abhay Bang, the Magsaysay award winner who worked in Gadchiroli, the poorest district of Maharashtra, with the support of the Gates foundation and Save the Children, has shown the world and India through his model of home -based care that infant mortality can be brought down substantially, and that too within a short time frame of three years. The Gadchiroli experience has proved that reducing child mortality is not difficult, as many people believe it to be.

The population myth too can be busted if we look at the history of developed nations. Fertility rates have actually gone down when child mortality rates came down. One of the reasons behind having numerous children is the false sense of security it provides to the poor who fear that many of their children will not survive. If many actually do survive, the need to have more will be lessened.

Manmohan Singh has, on several occasions, reiterated his government’s resolve to wage a war against malnutrition and other conditions that kill children. The government and we, the people, must get our act together to save the future.