Malnutrition, New York Times contributor David Rieff writes, is the “ghost at the party” in rapidly developing India. Despite the country’s rising development, 43 percent of children in India under age of 5 remain underweight. This figure perplexes readers even more next to comparative figures cited by Rieff from China and sub-Saharan Africa: a low 7 percent in China and 28 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. If India’s economic growth is indeed the success story that it has often been cited to be, why then is malnutrition still plaguing the children and people of India?
To our concern, Rieff reports, no one is quite sure why. Rieff points to the lack of women’s empowerment in rural and urban areas, the Indian government’s delayed response and sluggish initiative to act on the dire situation as major factors that contribute to the situation. However, the current status that perhaps demands more immediate attention is the “great deal of denial” among Indians that does not recognize this nutritional crisis and the severity of the stunt on the growth of India’s youth, lives, and, by and large, India’s future workforce and long-term well-being.
The path for India that Rieff is convinced of would help to radically bring change and improvement to the current malnutrition in India is a radical re-orientation of the Indian government to resemble China’s hybrid market-socialist and centralist state model. The merit of the Chinese system, according to Rieff, lies in the central power that the system confers the state to be more decisive and assertive in ways that India’s democracy does not allow. “Democracy is without question good for adults,” Rieff cited from an aid worker in India, “but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily the friend of small children.”
Despite the sensational quotation, I am unconvinced by the article’s hasty suggestion that if India is more like China, malnutrition in India would be eradicated. The article takes for granted that a more centralist state willing and ready to exercise its power would translate to an effective, better-performing state whose prioritization would always align with what is best for the country’s population. The Chinese government may have the power to make malnutrition a state priority, but would it? What solutions would it exactly propose to solve the malnutrition crisis? Clearly, malnutrition in India calls for immediate attention. But, more importantly, it calls for grounded solutions that target at the roots of the condition, not a wagering on political models and regimes.
By Nhu Truong
Why have women been counted out of the equation for development? Why is it important that foreign aid should direct more focus to educate and empower women in ways that can allow and create opportunities for greater female involvement in society and the economy? And, finally, how do we identify the invisible pressures of culture and tradition that are visibly tied to prevalent perceptions of women’s place in the family, society, and a country’s development as a whole?
Joined by the Wagner Women’s Caucus and Professor John Gershman, students participated in IPSA’s Reading & Discussion Group on October 15, 2009 for a discussion on these important questions about the effect of development on women. The discussion was grounded on a reading of two articles: “The Women’s Crusade,” and “Rights Versus Rites.”
It’s been a while since my first post and in that time a lot has happened. As reminder, my capstone team is working for GAIN – the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. We started work in Delhi on July 13, though I took my time coming to India making stops in England and Bombay to visit family and friends. Delhi – hot, humid, and dull, Delhi - was made all the more bearable upon meeting our capstone clients finally and realizing just how lucky wer are. The entire GAIN-India staff is extremely generous, hospitable, and supportive. I don’t want to jinx us, but I really think we’re a very lucky capstone team based on the stories I’ve heard from previous years.
We spent less than a week in Delhi and then hit the road to visit several locations in India where GAIN’s partner – Naandi – operates kitchens providing nutrient-fortified meals to students at government schools through India’s mandated Midday Meals Program. (Or, “Middy Meals” as was posted on one government official’s office door.) I should mention that during our time in Delhi, one thing that made me appreciate our client all the more was their willingness to allow us to format the scope of our work with a great deal of freedom. Most importantly, we were able to opt for only one case study, dropping the research related to universal salt iodization. Although that topic seemed immensely interesting and one which could have had a great deal of policy impact, we didn’t feel that we could do justice to both it and the Midday Meal review. In the end, we opted for MDM since it was a more clearly defined assignment and would allow for more field study.
Since leaving Delhi, we’ve been to Udaipur, Rajasthan, and its environs; Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh; Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh; and are now in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Having been to India, it’s been wonderful revisiting some old stomping grounds like H’bad, but also great going to new places like Bhopal and Vizag. This amount of travel is just one more way that we’re being spoiled by our experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all a cake walk for us. Our days are starting at 3:40/4am regularly so that we can arrive at the central kitchens early enough to see the lunches being prepared and the the delivery trucks heading out on their routes. We spend some time in each kitchen speaking with the managers, route coordinators and staff (cooks, cleaners, drivers, et al, as possible). Then we head off to see some of the schools receiving their meals with time to speak with headmasters, teachers, and students. Before and after lunch, we go for meetings with government officials and end the day with debriefings, typing up notes, and prep for the next day. If we’re lucky, we get two nights in one place before flying/training off to the next site.
Overall, my impression has been one of amazement. Amazement at how much India has changed since 2003/2004 when I was here for study abroad and amazement at the work that Naandi is doing. Everywhere I turn there are western or western-style stores. Each city seems to have a brand new airport that puts JFK to shame (not that that is so hard to do). Even though I spent 6 months in Hyderabad, I could hardly recognize the place given all of the new construction. When I first came to India, it was easy to miss the US and understand why those who wanted a better chance in the world to send their children to the States for school or work. Now, though, India has become a much more appealing place to live, at least for those who are upwardly mobile and have the option to attend school.
Naandi. What Naandi does with a staff of five and on a shoestring budget would put any fat American NGO to shame. Providing nutritious meals to children for whom it is often the only meal of the day, in four states, in different languages, with different tastes. All while combatting local prejudices, political tensions and Indian bureaucracy. I can’t help but want to drop out of Wagner and stay on full-time to help out. I don’t think I’ll be that rash quite yet. At least not until I take a look at my fall semester reading list. But, honestly, Naandi, and in particular, the Naandi Midday Meal Director Leena Joseph, are inspiring. Being here and participating in work like this is a strong confirmation that Wagner is the right place to be and that international public service is the right field to be in.
I have forgotten to mention that we share our house with some of the area’s long-term residents. All sorts of bugs and even some reptiles enjoy romping around. Of particular abundance are the ants. Not just in our room, but throughout the entire compound. We have seen ant colonies that are taller than us and everywhere you go you can observe an endless line of ants working to keep their community going. It is also common to see a bunch of these little guys going at a scarab or similarly large insect and we regularly try to save the big guys. Of course, walk back a half hour later and you may see remnants of a shell, if you see anything at all.
On Saturday evening, we went to Berhampur (the closest main town) and took in the sights, sounds, and food. It basically involved avoiding muck from open gutters, buying seriously needed snacks, drinking something cold, buying some alcoholic beverages, and eating Chinese food. It was a good break from our daily routine but the town itself was nothing to be excited about and it was difficult to see how people were living there.
As we were leaving the city by Gram Vikas shuttle, we headed down a narrow road, made worse by the excess of abutting huts. It was really an experience: our large bus pushing past within 6 inches of these slum dwellers’ home entrances. As we passed on particular dwelling, a baby was standing outside screaming and crying for what appeared to be her mother and grandmother. They were on the opposite side of the road, cleaning their bowls in roadside muddy puddle water probably contaminated with all the traffic going by. Once that was done, the elderly woman walked a few feet behind a bush and started relieving herself.
India is a country which spans the entire spectrum of hope and cannot yet find the strength to work for the collective good. The ants around here have figured it out, hopefully the rest of us can too.
P.S. – for more updates, you can follow along with me at http://niluam.wordpress.com
As we boarded the plane to leave Delhi behind, I couldn’t help feel a spark. For so many years I had been behind a desk doing work that I knew was not where I should be, and here I was about to fly to rural India to work with tribal people who are tremendously removed from what my life has been so far. Being in Delhi had afforded us a good transition phase as we had access to anything we needed, from food to internet to air-conditioning. I have no doubt in my mind that Orissa is going to be much, much different.
We still have no real understanding of our project’s aim and I worry about how much time will pass before that becomes clearer. We need to be sure of what we’re doing if we are going to pull the right information in the field and not having a focused agenda may lead to unnecessary inquiries. Are we looking at Gram Vikas’s efficiency? Are we going to assess the impact of the water and sanitation on factors that may not be obvious or at least less well understood (of course, improved water and sanitation would promote a more healthy environment, but how does it directly contribute to pushing folks out of poverty, create gender and caste equality, etc)? Are we here to document successes of the Gram Vikas model, look for holes that could be filled, and then relate these practices to India’s national plan?
We’re going to make a play for leaving on the 29th so that we can have a day or so to meet with folks in Bhubaneswar. I hope we make the most of the short time we have here.
We spent about 2 hours or more after landing trying to get cell phones. After that, we had a great meal that only cost us about $4 including tip…total. The same meal in Delhi would have probably been at least $4 each if not more. Amazing what a 2 hour trip can lead you to. Then we began our 4 hour journey to the Gram Vikas headquarters. I was floored by the differences between here and Delhi. You can see the lack of development all around and while the view was amazing and the air the freshest I’ve ever smelt in India, it was hard to feel comfortable. Maybe that feeling will change over the next few weeks.
We got to the Gram Vikas headquarters and it seemed like a very large compound (200 acres we were later told). All along, the four of us had thought we would be staying in their dorms, but when our driver pulled up to a small house, we all got pretty excited. Yes…we have our own house here: 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a common area, and even a terrace! The three girls are in one room and it’s me by my lonesome in the other. The area is beautiful and we are surrounded by trees, it sort of feels like summer camp. The mess hall takes a few minutes to walk to and dinner was good. Mr. Jacob is the first person we have met here, and I am not sure of his responsibility. I think he is in charge of taking care of guests.
Tomorrow should be interested. We are supposed to meet our contact, Chitra, and hopefully get started. It’s been a long day…
I think it’s what, the 9th now? We arrived safe and sound in Delhi late night on the 7th (well, except for Molly’s bag) and it’s been a whirlwind since.
Yesterday we all woke up at a decent time and had breakfast, booked a car for the next 4 days, visited Dr. Connor’s at the World Bank, ate a snack at the hotel , napped, went to a temple, went to an underground bazaar, went to The Lalit Hotel for a way too fancy dinner (I swear, I didn’t know, it said live music so I suggested it!), came back and discussed our meeting with Dr. Connors and collectively passed out.
The meeting with Dr. Connors was a good one. She did not seem to be acting as a World Bank agent and appeared to be more interested in giving us as much information about water issues in India as she could (and providing contacts where she could not). I cannot say I expected anything from the meeting, although part of me says if we could have met here after a week or at the end, we could have gotten more from her. Hopefully she’ll stay a resource throughout the project.
During our conversation, we brought up the recent flooding in Mumbai, and talked about how there are these recurring problems year after year. She mentioned that in India you have “flash floods and flash problems” and that, while it is a serious issue, folks in India do not look at monsoon problems the same way outsiders do. It is welcomed since it brings cool weather and provides for some entertainment.
I get it…I just don’t buy it as an excuse.
Department of Drinking Water Supply and more World Bank today. Let’s see what they have to say about it.
June 3, 2009
We had our last Capstone class for the summer yesterday night and now all that stands in the way between my team and India is getting the dates from the client and a few other logistical details. It is weird to think how far we have come since this time last year when we were all in a different life and in a different world. I was still teaching seventh grade and was counting down the school year with more anticipation than my students; waiting for my life to start all over again in New York City and at Wagner. I would never have guessed last summer that this summer I would be heading to rural India to study water and sanitation provision.
It has been quite a journey that has brought us to this place. I remember meeting second year students on the bus on the way to the retreat and thinking they all seemed so knowledgeable and looking at them with such awe. And now here I am, in the same place as them. Only now am I truly understanding the wisdom of John Gershman who said in our very first class, my very first day that this work is often like drinking out of a fire hose with too much information. The learning curve at Wagner is very steep but once you are on the other side the view is totally worth the climb.
I thought I’d take the plunge and get us started. Here goes.
Along with fellow board members Tara and Maulin, I’ll be heading off to India for summer-fall capstone. Within Dr. David Winder’s undernutrition capstone, I am part of the team working with GAIN – the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition – a Geneva-based NGO. I’m lucky enough to be working with IPSA’s 2008-2009 secretary, Kristina Corvin; our NYUMI rep, Cecelia Tanaka; WHN co-chair, Debbie Koh; and Rubina Khan, our resident Hindi expert and second health specialist.
For the first part of our work with GAIN we’ll review and evaluate two projects currently underway. The first is a partnership with the Naandi Foundation which provides midday meals to underprivileged youth. We’ll travel to Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan to visit several food preparation centers and assess the decentralization efforts and successes. The second is a salt-iodization program for which we’ll travel again to Rajasthan to conduct interviews to help us explore challenges and develop suggestions to help mobilize local salt-iodization collectives.
The second part of our assignment entails working with GAIN and its Washington-based partner Ashoka to facilitate a global online competition to identify entrepreneurs in the field of nutrition.
Honestly, it all seems a bit daunting at the moment, but after our first class tonight, I’m extremely excited and eager to move forward. I’ll keep you posted as the summer goes on with more information about the work and, more likely, tales of the trials and tribulations of capstone team work in the middle of monsoon season.
PS. I’m totally new to blogging, so I still don’t know what I’m doing. This will be a work in progress for me.