Page last updated at 09:34 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 10:34 UK

Delhi notebook - malnutrition and malls

By Chris Morris
BBC News, Delhi

Child in Delhi creche
This is one of the lucky children in a Delhi creche who now gets three meals a day

How can a country have credibility as a global power when it can't prevent more than 60 million of its youngest children falling victim to malnutrition?

It's a question which could haunt India's government, of whatever political hue, for years to come.

Just as human rights have marred China's aspirations to global leadership, so malnutrition could mar India's.

I visited a creche right in the heart of Delhi this week for the children of migrant construction workers.

Basic education

Surrounded by the white colonial-era bungalows of the great and the good, the creche is run by volunteers from a small temporary hut at the back of a construction site.

This Madhya Pradesh baby weighs 2.9kg - she should be around 4.5kg

While their parents build the new India brick by brick, the kids are given something even more valuable - three meals a day and basic education.

The women who run the creche say that 70% of children are malnourished when they first arrive.

But for a few months they flourish, until their families move on again looking for work in an uncertain world.

The young mothers who arrive to drop off their children, before heading off for a day's hard labour, say they too can see the difference.

"Before, my child was weak," said one. "But they gave him eggs and bananas and he became stronger."

"Because we have this help, things are less expensive," said another. "Otherwise, if we were somewhere else, it would be tougher."

Sprawling city

None of the children is starving.

You don't see the dramatic signs of crisis that you might find in some remote rural districts.

Malnourished child with his mother
India has some of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world

In Madhya Pradesh, for example, more than 100 children are reported to have died from severe malnutrition in the last few months.

But what can be found at the creche - and in poor neighbourhoods across this huge sprawling city - are the hidden long-term effects which stunt growth and prevent children building healthy and productive lives.

In other words, typical examples of chronic malnutrition which could be avoided. These are children who could and should be better fed in a country which sees itself as a rising economic power in the world.

You don't have to travel very far to find that newly confident and glitzy India.

Not far from my house in South Delhi, a luxury shopping mall called Emporio is opening up. It is a world unimaginable to hundreds of millions of Indians. A Bollywood fantasy.

The ceilings are gold-plated, the prices are eye-watering, and the names are familiar to any aspiring fashionista -- Dior, Jimmy Choo, Dolce and Gabbana.

For the last few days Emporio has been hosting one of two competing Fashion Weeks taking place in Delhi - a symbol of "the dynamic, vibrant and confident face" of modern India.

"I think we'll be busy here," said one store manager, when I paid a recent visit.

Impressive speed

In the lobby cafe a singer was warbling along to Celine Dion, while workmen put the finishing touches to a small boutique along the corridor.

"Plenty of Indians have shopped in places like this abroad," the store manager said. "Now they want to do it at home."

And why not? Many Indians are doing very nicely, thank you. Perhaps as many as two million households earn $100,000 a year or more, as the economy continues to grow at impressive speed.

And if you've got it in 21st century India, you tend to flaunt it. The days of homespun Gandhian simplicity are long gone.

But two thirds of this country's population still survives on less than $2 a day. When the numbers are that large, trickle down economics doesn't work on its own.

And that means that child malnutrition could slow the rise of 21st century India. Increasingly the government knows it and it says change has to be a priority.

The money to make a difference is certainly there, but it now has to be deployed with consistent political will.

Otherwise malnutrition will remain India's national shame.

Delhi notebook - deals and jailbirds
18 Jul 08 |  South Asia

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