It’s just not about beauty in Gujarat
It is surprising that the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who is considered a shrewd administrator, well on top of the problems in his state, as well as a possible contender for the prime minister’s post, has blundered on the issue of malnutrition. In an interview to The Wall Street Journal, an American news daily, he has attributed his state’s high rates of malnutrition to vegetarianism and to the figure conscious Gujarati girls. He has reportedly said, ‘The middle class is more beauty-conscious than health-conscious – that is a challenge.’ While Modi may not be entirely in the wrong when he blames these factors for the shocking state of malnutrition in Gujarat, these are surely not the primary reasons. The question to which Modi’s response came was in the context of recent figures that half of Gujarat’s children were short for their age or had stunted growth. Yet it can hardly be that this very large number of young children are beauty conscious to such an extent that they feed improperly. Despite its impressive economic growth and its ability to drawn attention from investors, Gujarat’s performance with regard to this crucial health indicator has not been at all impressive. According to a recent Human Development Report of the United Nations, Gujarat is the worst in the fight against malnutrition among the high per capita states, and ranks even below Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam. This status of malnutrition in this state has been confirmed by other studies, in addition to those that have found it low on other human development indices as well. The third National Family Health Survey found over 41 per cent of Gujarati children under three years of age to be under-weight, which is worse than the national average. It also found over 55 per cent of Gujarati girls in the 15-45 age group to be anaemic. Modi’s statement trivialises what is essentially a complex problem. A range of factors are responsible for malnutrition. Possibly the most important is poverty which leads to a lack of access tonutrition.Thereare, in addition causes such as corrupt food distribution systems and poor heathcare facilities and a lack of awareness that may lead to inconsistent breast-feeding practices, among a host of other reasons. The consequences of malnutrition can be serious, for it can lead to physical and mental retardation and leave individuals easy prey to diseases. To be fair to Modi, he also said that his government was drastically trying to address the problem. Yet the problem cannot be so addressed if its contours are wrongly understood, especially by the chief executive of a state government. So Modi had better get his act together and update his knowledge about factors crucial to the well-being of his state and people.