Monday, December 13, 2010

India's slum kids

At a dumping ground that is a half-hour drive from the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai’s upcoming, ultra-modern business district, in a house made of tarpaulin and wooden planks, Gulnaz Sheikh lies on her mother’s lap, too weak to sit or stand. Gulnaz, who turned one year old in September, weighs 5kg and measures 55cm, both of which indicate that she is malnourished or, to be more specific, undernourished. This means that she does not have enough nutrients to fight infection. The World Health Organization classifies a girl who at one weighs less than 6.3kg and measures less than 66.3cm as “severely malnourished”, a definition that the Indian government also uses.

“Gulnaz needs immediate attention,” said Shobha Udipi, head of the Food Science and Nutrition department at SNDT University, who headed a research project two years ago on the nutritional status of 5,000 children in Mumbai slums. “Her physical and cognitive growth are at risk in the long term, if she survives.” Malnourished children who do survive find it more difficult to cope with academics and physical activities and have a high tendency to drop out of school.In an economy driven by skilled labour, these children can never find a way out of the cycle of poverty.

Shivaji Nagar slum in Mumbai’s Govandi locality where Gulnaz lives, is far from an aberration. In the shadows of glitzy residential skyscrapers and business districts, Mumbai’s shanties are in the grip of a silent malnutrition crisis. Between 40% and 60% of the city’s nearly 730,000 slum children up to four years of age are malnourished, and between 7.5% and 30% are severely malnourished. (The Indian government puts the figures at the lower end while academics’ and social workers’ estimates are at the higher end.) Nearly 97% of women in Mumbai slums received no services from the scheme during pregnancy and 99.2% received no services while breast-feeding.

Water costs Rs15 and Rs.30 for 5L in Gulnaz’s slum. Her family’s monthly income is Rs3,000 and, with seven mouths to feed, her mother Aasma can afford to buy only 10L a day to use for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing. Water is a major source of infection.

Malnutrition is a manifestation of a deeper problem of poverty. Healthcare is also a problem.Mumbai has just 183 public health posts and 162 public dispensaries for 8.28 million slum dwellers. Health posts mainly give out contraceptives while the dispensaries treat patients. But each dispensary has just one doctor seeing 50 to 200 patients a day

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