Children in Neoliberal India – Starved and Stunted

PM Manmohan Singh would like us to believe that adopting the policies of liberalisation have put India on the fast track towards becoming a global superpower. Recent studies have, however, called his bluff, showing that when it comes to tackling hunger and basic literacy, India’s showing is among the worst in the world. Let’s look at some of the facts.


The Global Hunger Index 2011 ranks India at 67th place amongst 81 countries, shockingly, behind even other South Asian neighbours like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and other notoriously poor and backward countries like Sudan.

According to the GHI:

    • • 21% Indians are undernourished

• Nearly 44% of India’s under-5 children are underweight

• 7% of India’s children die before they reach five years

A recent ‘HUNGaMA’ (Hunger and Malnutrition) report prepared by some corporates and NGOs and backed by MPs cutting across party lines found that in the 100 focus districts of the study:

    • • 42% of children under 5 are underweight and

• 59% children under 5 are stunted

The PM Manmohan Singh, releasing the HUNGaMA report, said it was a ‘national shame.’

If hunger and malnutrition are indeed a national shame, why is the Prime Minister paying mere lip service to the issue?

    • • The GHI report holds that steep hikes in food prices are mainly responsible for global hunger. The Indian Government has completely failed to curb hikes in food prices.

• The National Food Security Bill tabled in Parliament recently is an insult to those who are battling hunger. It persists with the ‘targeting’ method, rather than providing universal coverage.

• While the Government was forced to back down on its Rs 26/Rs 32 poverty criteria, the Bill’s ‘priority’ section covers only a small section of the population beyond this infamous poverty line.

• The Bill proposes to fix the state-wise numbers for the ‘priority’ (BPL) section arbitrarily from above.

• The actual amount of food rations per family will be reduced when the Bill comes into effect, and the subsidised rates for food grain too are higher than those prevalent now in many states.

• Many current APL card-holders will find themselves deprived of coverage when the Bill comes into effect.

• Further, food grain rates for APL beneficiaries, instead of being fixed, are tagged at half the MSP, and are therefore vulnerable to fluctuations and hikes.

• The criteria for the BPL census are designed to exclude a large number of the poor.

• Above all, the Bill allows the Central Government to declare a shift from food entitlements to cash transfers, and tags the entire PDS to the highly controversial Aadhaar (UID) scheme.

    • • In spite of a Supreme Court directive, the Government is yet to universalise the ICDS scheme, which is the main scheme dedicated to improving nutrition and survival of women and children.

• The Government’s fund coverage for ICDS is still highly inadequate. As a result, over 1 lakh anganwadis remain unoperational, while those that do operate often lack the most basic facilities.

• Anganwadi workers are extremely underpaid and overworked. In the February 2011 Budget, the Finance Minister promised to hike the honorarium of anganwadi workers to Rs 3000 and helpers to Rs 1500 – but even this paltry hike is yet to come into effect, and the women are still getting half these amounts.

• Now, the Government is talking of ‘restructuring’ the ICDS in keeping with World Bank recommendations, and is proposing to privatise the ICDS on a ‘PPP’ model. Such measures can only help food marketing companies prey on the malnutrition of women and children for profit.


Indian students scored bottom at the tests conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assessed the ability of 15-year-old students at basic reading, maths and science.

16,000 students from 400 schools in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh (both enjoying relatively high ranking on human development indicators among Indian states) participating in the PISA exercise, scoring the lowest scores in the world, second only to Kyrgyzstan. (See scores in Box)

And HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has just released the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) on rural India, prepared by an NGO, Pratham. This report, studying both government and private schools in rural India, shows rising enrolment in school, but declining attendance, over-reliance on private tuitions, and a marked decline in reading and mathematical ability of children in the age group between six and 14. (See detailed findings in Box)

Faced with the PISA rankings and the ASER report, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal was quick to shift the blame for poor schooling standards to state governments.

However, the facts stare us in the face – Sibal’s much-hyped ‘Right to Education Act’ has done precious little to improve the quality of schooling in India. The RTE did nothing to end the discriminatory divide in schooling, whereby a small number of rich children avail of good schooling at select private schools at high fees; while the bulk of students are doomed to schools which lack the most basic educational facilities.

Interestingly, while the ASER report shows that more and more children are shifting to private schools, it also shows that most private schools too lack the minimum educational and infrastructural criteria laid down by the RTE, and the basic reading and mathematical skills of students in these private schools too is far below the mark. This means that the private school industry that is mushrooming all over the country, extorting high fees and exploiting the hunger for education, is also lacking in basic educational standards!

It is notable that China’s performance in the PISA ranking is among the highest in the world, topping the rankings in maths and science. This ought to be a reminder to India, that quality schooling for every student is possible only when the Government makes schooling a priority.

As long as privatisation of education remains the norm; as long as educational access remains contingent on the ability to pay high fees; as long as government schools are starved while private players are free to prey on students and profit from education, students in India will remain educationally deprived.

Thanks to the Indian Government’s pro-liberalisation policies, India’s future generation of children are starved of nutrition and learning, and stunted both physically and intellectually. No cosmetic measures promising ‘right to education’ or ‘right to food’ can carry any credibility until and unless these rights are guaranteed universally to all, and backed by a serious shift in policy priorities.

Box 1

India’s PISA Scores

Reading Literacy

Along with that of Kyrgyzstan, Himachal Pradesh-India had the lowest average reading score among all the countries studied, and Tamilnadu-India is somewhat better. Only 11% of students in HP, and 17% in Tamilnadu, are estimated to have a proficiency in reading literacy that is at or above the baseline needed to participate effectively and productively in life.


Along with Kyrgyzstan, Himachal Pradesh and Tamilnadu got the lowest average scores in mathematical literacy. 12% students in HP and 15% in TN had a baseline level proficiency in mathematics.


Just 11% students in HP and 16% in TN have a baseline-level proficiency in science.

Box 2

Sorry State of Schooling in Rural India, 2011

(ASER Findings)

67% Std. III Children of Government Schools, and 45% of Private Schools


58% Std V Children in Government Schools and 39% of Private Schools


40% Std III Children in Government Schools and 20% in Private Schools


77% Std V Children of Government Schools and 61% of Private Schools


23.3% children of Government Schools and 21.8% of Private Schools attend


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