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Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Why are toilets low priority in India?

No amount of stink, or raising one to correct it, would work quick enough to change the order of things. Toilets, you see, are our least priority

Anyone who had travelled by trains in India [ Images ] does not have to be told of the toilet-effect. It is the stench that permeates the coaches, the mess within the toilets which are places with a hole in the floor over which a commode or a squat pan is placed. It lacks three elements: a proper design, enough water to service it, and proper user-habits.
Now, it transpires, these toilets on Indian Railway coaches also do damage to the rail tracks and they very coaches on which they are housed as a passenger amenity. The human excrement falls on to the tracks and corrodes the tracks. They splatter the coaches' undercarriages and maintenance crews shy away from servicing those parts.
Thus, they make train travel unsafe. A committee of rail safety headed by nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar has suggested that railways opt for a new design which contains the human waste from falling on the tracks and messing with the undercarriages. If done, they would also save the expense of having to replace the tracks and rolling stocks to sustain safety.
It is not that the railways are unaware of the issues of toilets, their designs and even implications for, curiously -- one did not expect it then, and one does not believe it now -- during Lalu Yadav's [ Images ] tenure as railway minister, it was decided to install eco-toilets which made for better hygiene. A large proportion of as many as 9,000 trains were to have been fitted by now. They only sat on their haunches.
That is quite a stink.
Had this been done, Kakodkar and his team would have only asked for speeding up their installation, not for change in design. Apparently nothing visible has been done on it since Lalu Yadav's announcement in 2008. One of the proposed designs then was from railways' own research designs and standards organisation which has excreta being collected in a tank, where it is broken down in about a week's time by enzymes. The liquid part is treated with chlorine prior to being let out.
The other was a zero-discharge design from IIT-Kanpur which recycles fluids for flushing and does not deposit the muck on the tracks.
But a word about how the damage occurs to the tracks and the undercarriages: Kakodkar was quoted in the Indian Express, the only newspaper to take it seriously enough, was that the pH content of the human excrement reduced the life span of the 1.1 lakh km long tracks. Likewise, the splatter affected some 43,000 coaches that now ply. pH is a measure in chemistry. If it is less than 7, it is acidic. If more than 7, it indicates alkalinity. Either can impinge on the tracks, clips and liners which hold them together for a train to safely pass over.
We do not know what priority the cash-strapped railways would now assign this issue. It has not been an issue so far for the only design changes we see now, at least in the air-conditioned coaches is the provision of a hand-held shower and sometimes a mug chained to the wall to prevent theft, some dispensers without soap in them. During the train's journey, the toilets are not cleaned by staff stationed at various junctions. Water is sometimes missing.
What about the conditions in unreserved coaches which are overcrowded unlike the reserved ones? One can well imagine it and not be wrong. Many a train in India take over 24 hours to complete a journey and surely, even the unwashed majority who use open spaces for their nature's call would find it choking but are uncomplaining. For, in India, toilets are a very low priority.
That explains why we have more cell phones in India than toilets as pointed out by UNICEF and why Indian women want cell phones and not toilets, as Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh [ Images ] has been saying. Probably, because, like the ones on the Indian Railways, both on trains and at stations, the toilets don't seem to work.  That is why half the population are without access to toilets; in plain numbers, shockingly, over half a billion.
The government has been making efforts of a token kind: provide Rs 3,000 per toilet if you don't have one but want to when it actually costs thrice that and not all Indian are in the affording class here. And those who have had a toilet installed have also converted it for different uses like storage of agricultural implements, a storeroom for the home and in some rare cases in Marathwada, into places of worship.
Along with absence of toilets, the other is the issue of water and good hand-washing practices. The India Human Development Report 2011 was blunt with the obvious: "Open defecation is a serious threat to health and nutritional status, in addition to the safety of women and girls." And, "The situation is more dismal in rural areas where more than 75 per cent households do not have toilet facilities. Even if a single household is defecating in the open, that household can be a source of diarrhoea for all households," in the proximity of the village it said.
Toilet training an entire nation is stupendous where resources, including the all-critical water to ensure even good hand-cleaning practices to avoid contamination, are hard to come by. Maharashtra [ Images ], said to be one of the better states with the highest number of villages which abandoned open defecation is still a modest achievement. The best-achiever state has only 9,082 villages out of 27,928 gram panchayats which use toilets, not open spaces.
Obviously, there are worse states. Karnataka's [ Images ] former advocate general had to file a PIL in the high court asking for an end to scavenging where one is employed to clean up and carry away another's discharge. Despite a law, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines Prohibition Act 1993, that was in place he had to ask for its enforcement. But then, it is on paper for even urban centres have no drains, people use sceptic tanks to collect the human waste which in turn is again manually cleaned.
Even, as in Maharashtra, good intentions have not met with appropriate support from those who stand to benefit. Majority of toilets those built within the homes or as an adjunct to it in the villages with government aid were either converted into spare storage areas for keeping farm implements or the overload from tiny homes. It happened in Latur earthquake-hit areas as it did in other places where subsidies in crores of rupees were doled out to encourage toilets to end open defecation.
It just seems that we have a long way to go though no one is asking for toilets smelling of lavender. In Mumbai [ Images ], women who have a high rate of urinary tract infection would be happy with mere clean ones. No amount of stink, or raising one to correct it, would work quick enough to change the order of things.
Why, you can even unknowing tread upon it on an Indian street. And fear it happening again.
Toilets, you see, are our least priority.
Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator on public affairs.
Mahesh Vijapurkar

Source:- http://www.rediff.com/news/column/why-are-toilets-low-priority-in-india/20120229.htm

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

India's hunger 'shame': 3,000 children die every day, despite economic growth

India's hunger 'shame': 3,000 children die every day, despite economic growth

Severely malnourished girl Rajni, 2, is weighed by health workers in Madhya Pradesh, India, February 1.
Crying as she is put on an electronic scale, two-year-old Rajini's naked shriveled frame casts a dark shadow over a rising India, where millions of children have little to eat.
The children are scrawny, listless and sick in this run-down nutrition clinic in central India with its intermittent power supply. If they survive they will grow up shorter, weaker and less smart than their better-fed peers.
Rajini weighs 5 kg (11 lb), about half of what she should.
"She's as light as a leaf, this can't be good," says her grandmother, Sushila Devi, poking her rib-protruding stomach in the clinic in Shivpuri district in Madhya Pradesh state.
Almost as shocking as India's high prevalence of child malnutrition is the country's failure to reduce it, despite the economy tripling between 1990 and 2005 to become Asia's third largest and annual per capita income rising to $489 from $96.
A government-supported survey last month said 42 percent of children under five are underweight - almost double that of sub-Saharan Africa - compared to 43 percent five years ago.
The statistic - which means 3,000 children dying daily due to illnesses related to poor diets - led Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to admit malnutrition was "a national shame" and was putting the health of the nation in jeopardy.
"It is a national shame. Child nutrition is a marker of the many things that are not going right for the poor of India," said Purnima Menon, research fellow on poverty, health and nutrition at the Institute of Food Policy Research Institute.
India's efforts to reduce the number of undernourished kids have been largely hampered by blighting poverty where many cannot afford the amount and types of food they need.
Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Women hold their severely malnourished children as they stand outside the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre of Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, India, February 1.
Poor hygiene, low public health spending and little education and awareness have not helped. Age-old customs discriminating against women such as child marriage have also contributed, but are far harder to tackle, say experts.
In addition, shoddy management of food stocks, subsidized carbohydrate-rich food that fuel and fill the poor rather than truly nourishing them and real shortages in its poorest states have worsened the problem.
At the Shivpuri clinic, health worker Rekha Singh Chauhan tends to emaciated young children in a ward with a ganglion of electrical wires running cross its paint-chipped walls.
"We only have a handful to take care of now, but come April, the cases will shoot up," says Chauhan, adding that diseases such as diarrhea and malaria will cause an influx of sick underweight children with the onset of summer.
"The situation becomes bad. Three children are made to share a bed and many have to sleep on the floor."
That picture jars with an India clocking enviable 8-9 percent growth over the last five years that has put money in the pockets of millions of its people and fuelled demand for everything from cars and computers to clothes and fancy homes.
It has also catapulted the country onto the world stage, boosting its claim for a bigger role on forums such as the U.N. Security Council. This month, it moved closer to buying new fighter jets worth a whopping $15 billion.
Adnan Abidi / Reuters
Four-month-old Vishakha, who weighs 2.3 kg (5 lbs) and suffers from severe malnutrition, rests on a bed next to her mother at the Nutritional Rehabilitation Centre, Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, India on February 1.
Yet while the urban middle classes dine in swanky shopping malls where eateries offer everything from sushi to burritos, millions of children are dying due to a lack of food.
Last month's report by the Indian charity Naandi Foundation, the first comprehensive data since a 2005/6 study, said India's "nutrition crisis" is an attributable cause for up to half of all child deaths.

Yet India's public spending on health, estimated at 1.2 percent of its GDP in 2009, is among the lowest in the world.
"This isn't a quick-fix that we're looking at here, it's not a magic bullet," said Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children International.
"Not just in India, but in countries around the world, we know that you can't just rely on trickle down. There have to be policies in place, there have got to be political choices that prioritize malnutrition."
In Shivpuri, an impoverished tribal-dominated district in Madhya Pradesh state, that reality is on full display.
The region's malnutrition level for children under five matches the national average, but child mortality rates are worse at 103 deaths per 1,000. The national average is 66 deaths per 1,000, according to U.N. children's agency, Unicef.
Most of the children here are from India's most marginalized and poorest communities, such as tribals and lower castes where literacy is poor and poverty high.
Their mothers are themselves often undernourished, forced into early marriage when they reach puberty, and give birth to underweight babies with weak immune systems.
Illiteracy or lack of awareness takes its toll as well. These mothers do not breastfeed, offering buffalo milk and contaminated water instead and making their children prone to illnesses like diarrhea, which prevents nutrient absorption.
Mostly living on less than $2 a day, these families can hardly afford anything beyond wheat chapatis that are devoid of much-needed protein and other nutrients.
India's neglect of its young - 48 percent are stunted, 20 percent wasted and 70 percent anemic - will have serious repercussions. The World Bank says malnutrition in the poorest countries slashes around 3 percent from annual economic growth.
In comparison, neighboring China has already achieved its target on malnutrition and under-five child mortality goals as its economic growth has been more broad-based, focusing on health, sanitation and small holder production.
While India has several schemes already running to battle malnutrition, the Indian government is now vaunting a multi-billion-dollar food subsidy program as a possible solution.
But the Food Security Bill, which guarantees cut-price rice and wheat to 63.5 percent of the population may be more a political gimmick, experts worry, than about providing nutritious food to those who need it most.
"The Food Security Bill is a very good development, but it is a food security bill, not a nutrition security bill," said Lawrence Haddad, director of the U.K.-based Institute of Development Studies.
For the children at Shivpuri's nutrition centre, government plans mean little unless they put enough of the right food in their stomachs.
"You see her arms? They are almost the width of my thumb," says Jharna, as she carried her limp, emaciated one-year-old grand-daughter, Sakshi, into the clinic. "She is too weak. She can't even sit by herself."
More from msnbc.com and NBC News:
Source:- http://worldnews.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/16/10424930-indias-hunger-shame-3000-children-die-every-day-despite-economic-growth

Monday, 27 February 2012

Microsoft founder Bill Gates urges digital revolution against hunger

Microsoft founder Bill Gates on Thursday called for a "digital revolution" to alleviate world hunger by increasing agricultural productivity through satellites and genetically-engineered seed varieties. 

"We have to think hard about how to start taking advantage of the digital revolution that is driving innovation including in farming," the US billionaire philanthropist said in a speech at the UN rural poverty agency IFAD in Rome. 

"If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture. We believe that it's possible for small farmers to double and in some cases even triple their yields in the next 20 years while preserving the land," Gates said. 

He gave as one example of innovation the genetic sequencing that allows cassava farmers in Africa to predict how individual seedlings will perform, shortening the time it takes to develop a new variety from 10 years to two. 

Another key development is the use of satellite technology developed by defence departments to document data about individual fields, as well as information videos of farmers discussing best practices to help others. "If we don't do this, we'll have a digital divide in agriculture," he said. 

Gates also defended the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the developing world and large-scale farm land investments by foreign states in the developing world, both highly controversial issues in the aid community. 

"You should go out and talk to people growing rice and say do they mind that it was created in a laboratory when their child has enough to eat?" he told reporters at a small media roundtable after his speech. "The change in the way mankind lives over the last several hundred years is based on adoption of innovative practices and we simply haven't done enough for those in the greatest need to bring these things," he said. 

On the issue of land investments that are referred to by their critics as "land grabbing", he said: "It's not actually possible to grab the land. People don't put it on boats and take it back to the Middle East. 

"If we could have clear guidelines there could be more land deals and overall it could be very beneficial... The truth is the person who is most at risk on a land deal is the person who is putting the money in." 

Gates also unveiled $200 million (150 million euros) in new grants from his foundation to finance research on a new type of drought-resistant maize, a vaccine to help livestock farmers and a project for training farmers. 

"Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty," he said, adding that his charitable foundation had committed $2.0 billion for farmers and was working on seven crops and one livestock vaccine. 

Gates called for a new system of "public scorecards" for developing countries and UN food agencies that would measure things like agricultural productivity, the ability to feed families and farmer education systems. "It's something that can be pulled together over the next year," he said. 

"When I meet with an African leader, I'd love to have that report card. I have a report card for health.... Without the scorecards, the donors tend to fund fad-oriented, short-term things," he told reporters. 

The technology pioneer also criticised the work of the UN food agencies in Rome: the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the World Food Programme(WFP) and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD). 

He said the current food and farming aid system was "outdated and somewhat inefficient" with a lot of "duplication." For these organisations to go digital will take "a lot of time," he said. 

Asked about the need for wider reforms of capitalism to help the poor, he said: "How do you get rid of its excesses, including the finance people who are paid these huge salaries, without hurting the beneficial things?" 

He added: "I wish those Wall Street traders would have gone... and worked on maize and used their mathematical models to look at phenotype versus genotype. "It's clearly imperfect but it's the best system we have."

Source:- http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international-business/microsoft-founder-bill-gates-urges-digital-revolution-against-hunger/articleshow/12008404.cms?curpg=2

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Will India's poor remain hungry?

A proposed Food Security Act would help - but not solve - the nation's food insecurity.

Farmers are now the primary beneficiaries of India's public food distribution systems  [GALLO/GETTY]

Salina, KS - As India's proposed new Food Security Act hovers in political limbo, the nation remains hungry. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made headlines in early January when he labelled the fact that 44 per cent of children less than five years old were underweight and 65 children die each day of malnutrition "a national shame". In all, 21 per cent of all Indians are undernourished.
Indeed, India ranks among the 15 hungriest countries in the world according to the Global Hunger Index - a grim fact made even grimmer when one recalls that one out of every six people on Earth lives in India.
There is much talk these days about a human right to food. Even the governments that don't recognise such a right are aware of the political and social turmoil that erupts when food becomes too scarce or costly. Since the 1950s, many nations have, in effect, purchased revolution insurance by buffering their food supplies against the sometimes devastating gyrations of world markets.
So-called public food distribution systems (PDS) have operated for years in dozens of countries around the globe. Governments buy up grains from farmers at a guaranteed price, maintain national grain stocks, and distribute grains and other foods through their PDS to consumers at subsidised prices.
India's PDS has been selling subsidised food through "fair price shops" on a national basis since the 1970s. The government in Delhi provides grain stocks to the states, who, in turn, supply the networks of fair price shops. The Food Security Act would increase the amount of grain going through the system by more than 75 per cent. That would raise the total to 66 million tonnes, or more than one third of India's entire grain production. If it were loaded into rail cars, it would occupy a train more than 5000 miles long that would stretch from Delhi to Casablanca.
Under the act, a family living below a specified low-income threshold would receive a new food-ration card, allowing each family member seven kilograms of grain each month at ultra-cheap prices: three rupees (about six US cents) per kilogram for rice, two rupees for wheat and just one rupee for sorghum and millet. That programme would serve 46 per cent of the population of rural India and eight per cent of urban residents. Another 27 per cent of Indian households, ones with somewhat higher incomes, would be eligible for three kilograms of grain each month at a higher, but still subsidised, price.
When governments intervene through a PDS to help both the farmer and the consumer, there's no free lunch. If the farmer is to stay economically viable and the consumer is to have affordable food, public funds have to fill the gap. And that's something that gives ulcers to those who truly believe in India's market makeover.
The pitfalls of targeting
The rise of neoliberal economics in recent decades has prompted policymakers to call for the curtailment or elimination of the PDS in many countries, most notably in Egypt, Iraq and India. The intent is to save money, but the risks include runaway food inflation and hunger - risks that few governments are willing to run. Therefore few, if any, programmes have been ditched completely. Instead, as a compromise, most PDS are now "targeted" only at low-income households.
Targeting sounds wise, but it turns out that the more effort governments put into purging ineligible households from any subsidy programme, the greater is the likelihood that eligible people will be excluded as well. A survey of PDS in eight countries concluded that, in places where a large proportion of the population is poor, targeting generally causes more problems than it solves and can cost more money than it saves.
Until 1997, all Indians could participate in the PDS. Since then, the system has been targeted at households that live below the official poverty line. One result is that millions of low-income Indians have lost access to subsidised food. Now, one-half to three-quarters of all families living below the poverty line in the country's poorest states have no ration card at all. In the first seven years of the targeting era, per capita calorie consumption declined in India, and age-adjusted body weights for children younger than three years old also dropped. 
The states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have bucked the targeting trend by maintaining near-universal coverage of the PDS, augmenting grain stocks at state-government expense, computerising distribution and "de-privatising" fair-price shops. That has not only improved people's access to food, but also reduced waste and fraud.
But rather than learn from success stories such as those, drafters of the Food Security Act moved to reverse such gains with a provision that would prohibit states from extending coverage of their PDS to people not designated by the central government as eligible.       
Economist and hunger expert Jean Dreze, a member of India's National Advisory Council, has written that the Food Security Act's continuation of targeting "prevents the emergence of a cohesive public demand for a functional PDS". He calls targeting "an ugly business" and argues that it turns "a purely statistical benchmark, the 'poverty line', into a permanent social division".
In need of an overhaul
That's not to say that India's PDS doesn't need a good overhaul. The biggest complaint from critics is that huge volumes of rice and wheat stocks never make it into the hands of consumers in some states. The share of PDS food grains that disappear from the system nationwide reached a peak of 53 per cent in 2005, but the government claims that losses have since declined. Some of the loss is the result of spoilage, but a greater amount is illegally diverted into the cash market, where it earns a hefty profit.
The most enthusiastic free-market fans among India's leaders have proposed replacing the PDS with distribution of food stamps - or even cash payments - to below-poverty-line households. A provision of the Food Security Act would allow such changes at the discretion of individual states. That would mean the end of the fair-price shop; recipients would buy at private food stores or supermarkets instead. The cash would be automatically deposited in bank accounts (which most of the poor don't currently have), or if food stamps were used, they would be distributed in the form of a "smart card" as they now are in the United States.
"The Food Security Act would go some way toward strengthening the faltering PDS - kind of like a repair job on an old '86 Oldsmobile that's a pain to drive but still runs."
Neoliberal theory says cash is a more efficient form of assistance than food. But studies in country after country have shown that in practice, subsidised food distribution improves nutrition more than an equivalent amount of cash aid. Cash benefits can very quickly be eroded by inflation, and even poorly nourished people can find themselves spending much of the money they receive on something other than food. Debt collectors, shady salespeople and out-and-out cheats have ways of knowing which families have extra cash coming in and will set out to relieve them of it. 
Whatever mode of delivery is settled upon, the PDS entitlement could end up merging with another political hot potato: the proposed Unique Identification Document (UID) or card that the government envisions will be a requirement of every Indian. The card would include not only a photograph but also electronic records of iris scans and all 10 fingerprints. An eyelash would be collected from each person as well, for archiving DNA. Civil-liberties advocates, not surprisingly, worry that the card could be used as a means of privacy invasion and repression.
Missing the irony
Those who would integrate the PDS more fully into the global marketplace seem to be missing the irony of the current situation, in which rural India's increasing exposure to the global market helped make expansion of the PDS necessary in the first place. Today, most people poor enough to be eligible for food rations live in rural areas where people once grew what they ate. Where diverse food crops once covered the landscape, there are now vast monocultures of cotton, wheat, rice, maize and other crops to be sold for cash - and often not enough cash to pay the debt amassed to grow them.
The PDS, originally aimed at cities as a subsidy to manufacturers (to keep the workforce fed on cheap food and allow wages to stay low), is now a lifeline for landless workers in the faltering farm economy, who sow and harvest crops they don't eat, only to then consume low-quality wheat and rice that's been trucked into the village fair-price shop from far away.
The Food Security Act would go some way toward strengthening the faltering PDS - kind of like a repair job on an old '86 Oldsmobile that's a pain to drive but still runs. And the government will continue to have to step in and fill the gap between the price the farmer needs and the price the low-income consumer can pay.
Meanwhile, the only long-term solution, not just in India, but in every hungry country, is to build an agricultural economy that not only produces enough nutritious food for everyone, but also provides good work for all rural people and rewards them sufficiently in return.