An Afghan child labourer works in a plastic recycle factory on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on June 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN
An Afghan child labourer works in a plastic recycle factory on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif on June 5, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / FARSHAD USYAN

It is time to remember Elizabeth Barrett Browning for her poem ‘The Cry of the Children’ dedicated to the condition of children in England who were made to clean chimneys and work in hazardous industries. As a result, many would catch serious diseases and eventually die an early death. The poem examines children’s manual labour forced upon them by their exploiters. It was published in August 1843, in Blackwood’s Magazine. But since then England has moved far ahead. All children go to school, get proper nutrition and healthcare required of them. But where do we stand today?

Death of over 125 children in Muzaffarpur due to Acute Encephalitis is very shocking. At this tender age, many of these children would not even know what is happening to them. Timely action could have prevented many deaths and such a big catastrophe. These children come from low-income group families and are poorly nourished. Even though the exact cause of this disease is not clear but one thing is certain that a malnourished child does not have enough resistance to fight any disease. For the last about 25 years, such epidemics occur in the area off and on, but no specific measures have been taken to date. It is to be noted with deep anguish that the announcements made in 2014 about improving the infrastructure in health facilities in the district have still not been met with even after 5 years. There is a serious lack of infrastructure. The number of doctors is less than 25 per cent of the required. Similar is the situation of the paramedical staff. The technical facilities are in extreme shortage. There is a need for immediate measures to save the lives of all those who are still alive but ill and also to prevent healthy children from falling sick. The situation should be declared as a calamity. The central government should send immediate financial and medical aid for speedy action.

Such events are a reflection of total apathy on the part of central and state governments towards the poor people of the region which is known for such epidemics. Only 2 years back similar incident happened in Gorakhpur where 125 children died due to lack of oxygen. That also drew a lot of media attention and promises. Good nutrition forms the primary basis of good health. It is even more important at the tender age of the first five years of life. But we are one among the worst performers as far as nutrition is concerned. Our hunger index is 103 among 118 countries. It is even worse than some of our neighbours.

Despite economic growth, the nutritional status of our children is alarmingly below required standards. In India 44 per cent of children under the age of 5 are underweight. 72 per cent of infants and 52 per cent of married women have anaemia. Research has conclusively shown that malnutrition during pregnancy causes the child to have increased risk of future diseases, physical retardation, and reduced cognitive abilities. Malnutrition in our country is both lack of calories as well as lack of intake of nutrients in proper proportion.

All these issues have to be sorted out through a comprehensive healthcare policy with budgeting enough to meet the needs of the people. To ensure the good health of our children we have to:

Ensure proper nutrition to all the children.

Healthy nutrition to all women in the reproductive age group.

Compulsory regular health checkup and basic investigations of children in the school to know about their health status.

Health education to children in schools and to prospective mothers.

To meet the above ensure universal compulsory education.

Raise family income by ensuring sufficient remuneration to meet their nutritional needs.

Provide a healthy environment, proper housing, clean drinking water supply and sewerage facilities.

Strengthen the midday meal scheme.

Economic measures have to be taken for inclusive growth.

These are the minimum measures needed to be taken to prevent such happenings in future. Public health spending has to be increased immediately to 3 per cent and subsequently to 6 per cent of the GDP in the coming years.

-Dr Arun Mitra

The writer is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.

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