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A Sick And Hungry Nation

By Teesta Setalvad

26 June, 2008

Even after 60 years of democracy, India remains one of the unhealthiest places in the world. Four out of five of our children are anaemic. Between 2001 and 2006 when India’s economy grew by almost 50%, the child nutrition rate (a number that measures the percentage of children under three who are moderately or severely underweight) dropped by just a single point, to 46%. Almost 25% of women who give birth do not receive proper antenatal care.

These shameful figures are from the National Family Health Survey. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that 900,000 Indians die every year because of poor quality drinking water and air. Our government has admitted that 55% of Indian households have no toilet facilities and many of our glittering cities lack sewers.

The economic boom has added to diabetes and obesity-related diseases for the rich, and while we have abandoned discourse and societal emphasis on holistic preventive medicine, immunisation and public healthcare including national health insurance schemes, almost 80% of all spending on healthcare is private.

Only one in ten Indians has any form of health insurance, and therefore, out of pocket payments for medical care totals to 98.4% of total expenditure by households. While the present UPA government seems to appreciate this state of affairs — promising more money for rural health through the National Rural Health Mission — a robust idea to compel medical students to spend a year in rural areas was shot down by the temper tantrums of elite India’s doctors-to-be.

In both Brazil and China, the public share of healthcare spending is 40%, while ours is a pathetic 17%.

No books for our kids

micro study by the educational rights group Social Jurist in Delhi exposed how thousands of students who attend MCD schools have still not been provided with books and stationery though the academic session began on April 1. It also reveals several shortcomings including non-availability of clean toilets and potable water in these schools. The group visited MCD Primary School, Anand Vihar 2, Delhi. A heap of garbage and a broom in almost every classroom were the common features.

How many of our state-run schools in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata have similar conditions?

While we must celebrate and gloat over the triumphant survival of Indian democracy and regular elections, it should surely not be at the cost of our utter failure at inclusive and egalitarian growth, transparency and accountability? For institutions, governments and delivery systems to be accountable, we must start at the very top. There can be no holy cows, not the judiciary, not Parliament, not the government servant. Each and all must be compelled to functional transparency and a candid social audit. Every government department and every government scheme must be operated with the full glare of scrutiny, publicity and transparency.

Officials who fail to deliver or worse, divert funds to deep pockets, must be prosecuted mercilessly. Section 197, the protective penal section that denies a citizen the freedom to prosecute such personages, is a shame in any democracy. No political party really wants it repealed and no one in the media runs a campaign on the issue.


The Gujarat police, scarred by charges of complicity in the anti-minority violence of 2002, never seems to tire of living up to its reputation. The conduct of the state’s police during the unearthing of the Patan multiple rape cases has now been matched with its crude move to stifle the freedom of expression. At 3 a.m. on 1 June, Commissioner of Police O.P. Mathur slapped a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy against the Resident Editor of the Ahmedabad edition of Times of India, a correspondent and a photographer.

The irony of ironies is that the Times of India was publishing explosive investigative reports exposing the nexus between the newly appointed Mathur and the underworld don Latif. The government whose chief scion Narendra Modi breast-beats about fighting terrorism seems to have no shame in appointing an official with alleged underworld links.

The protective sheen that the media itself has given the “made over Modi” is precluding even comments pointing out this irony

Teesta Setalvad is a human rights activist


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