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INDIA: Uttar Pradesh Is Not Somalia, Is It?

 Bijo Francis

The government of Uttar Pradesh state in India has a clear mandate and vision to protect its children. With more than 100 projects commissioned by the state’s child development agency and a few million dollars spent each year, one would expect the state’s children do be as healthy as well cared-for children elsewhere in the world. At least they must not die from acute malnutrition.

"The people of the country are its most valuable asset. The strength and prosperity of a nation lies in its people who are healthy, educated and economically self-reliant. Hence, in fulfilling the directions given in the Constitution of India, the government is committed to provide “… health and nutrition with a long-term goal of ensuring freedom from disease, illiteracy and poverty,” declares the Integrated Child Development Services’ mission statement.

It goes on, “The future of a country is vested in its children … it becomes predominantly significant to take adequate steps for the holistic development of the child right from the beginning when he is in the womb of his mother. Such development of children needs adequate facilities for health, education and nutrition."

Yet, in reality, children do die from malnutrition in Uttar Pradesh. The latest was two-year-old Sahabuddin, who died May 31, 2008. He lived with his parents in Dhannipur village in Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh. His parents were too poor to feed Sahabuddin – he weighed only six kilograms when he died. This is Grade III malnutrition, a condition that the world hears of in places like Somalia.

In the Somali Democratic Republic, however, there is no functioning government, there is a high rate of inflation and the country has faced a series of civil wars followed by a war with neighbouring Ethiopia that has destroyed whatever little infrastructure that country had. In these conditions—coupled with the harsh African weather that bakes the land as strong as concrete making it unfit for cultivation—starvation, malnutrition and death from starvation are inevitable.

The state of Uttar Pradesh is not so. It has a democratically elected government. It has ministers and secretaries who travel around the state in the name of governance in expensive air-conditioned vehicles. The state government has a woman chief minister at its helm, who has vowed to eradicate discrimination and poverty in the state.

The state is home to many of India’s national leaders. In fact, Uttar Pradesh is home to most of the former prime ministers. For this very reason it is one of the most influential states in the country. Yet, it is the second most backward state.

Sahabuddin's death was not the first of its kind. There are many other children who have died from starvation and malnutrition in Uttar Pradesh. Many more will die in future years. In fact, in Sahabuddin's village alone there are at least 13 other children who face similar circumstances. The state and district administrations are aware of the situation of these children. Most probably, state government records show that money has been spent for improving their condition. But the fact is, nothing has reached these children or their families.

Most state government funds intended to reach the poor never find their way to those in need, and Uttar Pradesh is no exception. In fact Uttar Pradesh is one of the most corrupt states in India. To make things worse, the current chief minister of this state is interested only in the political angle of the Dalit or lower-caste, issues in that state. Sahabuddin and his 13 friends are unfortunately from the Muslim community, a community in rural India that faces much discrimination because of its religion.

Dalit communities are the vote banks for the political parties. In fact the current chief minister came to power by “harvesting” the Dalit votes. Muslims are obviously a low priority issue for the chief minister. But that does not mean that the Dalits are better off in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, in the past five months at least six Dalit children have died from starvation in Uttar Pradesh. A number of other children are reported to be on the verge of death.

The difference is, on those occasions the chief minister dispatched high-ranking officers of the state to attend to the issue. The central government and even Rahul Gandhi, none other than the son of Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, intervened in some of these cases.

This is not because of any concern these politicians have for the poor. It is because of the simple fact that the case of a Dalit facing starvation in a state ruled by a Dalit is a good tool for political mudslinging.

The intervention by Rahul was to showcase the condition of poor Dalits in a state ruled by a Dalit leader and to gain political mileage from it. The intervention by the state government was to prevent this. Such high-profile dramas do not last long. In Sahabuddin's case nothing of that sort happened; nothing was expected.

On those terms Sahabuddin was unlucky. First of all he was a Muslim, born to poor Muslim parents in a state ruled by a Dalit leader. Then he happened to survive a little too long and unfortunately did not die when high-profile politicians like Rahul Gandhi had marked dates on their calendars to show empathy to the poor in India by affirmative action.

By the time he died the political war between Rahul's party and that of the chief minister's party in Uttar Pradesh was over. Sahabuddin should have known that political wars do not last long. He should have known that there is no permanent enemy or friend in politics.

There is an old saying in India… even if you die, if it is at a good time your death might do some good. For poor Sahabuddin, it seems that his timing was not good.

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