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Hunger in the Delhi slums

By Mike Thomson
Today programme, Delhi

A child eats at a government feeding centre
Delhi's slum children face the life-long consequences of malnutrition

Save the Children is warning that half a billion children around the world could be physically and mentally stunted unless more effort is made to fight malnutrition.

After conducting a survey across five developing countries it concluded that rising global food prices are largely to blame along with the failure of the international community to tackle the problem.

Many people questioned in India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and Peru said they were unable to afford nutritious foods like milk, meat and vegetables. Some revealed their children were skipping meals to help their families earn money for food and often went to bed hungry.

The charity says that children under two are most in need of help because the body and brain are developing fast at that age. Prolonged malnutrition for these children can irreversibly stunt their growth and reduce their IQ by as much as 15 points.

India is home to a third of the world's malnourished children. Some 43% of them suffer from malnutrition and three out of four are anaemic.

More than half of adults there polled by Save the Children said food prices have become their biggest worry and one in four said their children often have to go without meals, sometimes for a whole day.

Nasreen Khatoun
I thought it was some curse, some kind of evil spirit.
Nasreen Khatoun

Nasreen Khatoun lives in Bhagwanpura slum, one of the worst of many in New Delhi.

The 24-year-old's tiny home is crammed between other flimsy structures made from canvas, plastic and whatever can be found. Like most in this deprived area it has no electricity or running water.

But feeding rather than housing her family is Nasreen's biggest concern after already having lost two of her children to malnutrition. Both were two years old. Her daughter was the first to pass away.

"She died of acute malnutrition, she seemed to have dried up. She was just skin and bones," Nasreen told me.

"I thought it was some curse, some kind of evil spirit. The son who died was also acutely malnourished. One day all of a sudden he got pneumonia and he died."

There is little work in this area of Delhi and what there is pays a pittance. With her husband unable to work at the moment, Nasreen says getting food on the table is a permanent struggle.

"Prices have doubled of everything in the last one year. Everything is expensive the children eat only one meal a day. There is no assistance. We don't know what to feed our children," she explained.

Feeding centre for children in slum area in north Delhi
Malnourished children go to slum feeding centres for food

Not far away crowds of young children and their mothers squeeze into a small government run feeding centre, one of more than 10,000 in Delhi.

The scrawny youngsters jostle for ladles of dhal in an area where nine out of 10 children need help.

"There are a lot of children who come here who are extremely malnourished," said Seroja, a helper at the feeding centre.

"Their eyes stand out and their bones stand out and their legs are really thin. So you can see them and tell obviously that they are extremely seriously malnourished."

Malnutrition does not only leave children hungry. It also lowers the body's resistance to disease, leaving children open to contracting serious conditions like TB and pneumonia.

Delhi paediatrician Dr RK Gupta confirms that it also can ruin the long-term physical and mental health of suffers under two.

Children sift through rubbish in north Delhi slum
Conditions are desperate for children living in the Delhi slums

"If a child is malnourished in the first two years he's likely to remain malnourished in later life," he said.

"And definitely if he suffers from any disease he's likely to take longer to recover. In infancy or the first two years of life if malnutrition is there then intellectual capacity or physical development is all hampered."

A few miles away the damage done by early onset malnutrition is visible in the classroom, according to the vice-principle of a government school there.

Due to the stigma attached to the condition, the teacher concerned asked to remain anonymous.

"If poor parents are not able to give children a fully-balanced diet that has a great impact on their leaning ability," he told me.

Slum children at feeding centre
Childhood malnourishment takes a physical and mental toll

"In language some of them can read but not write. In mathematics for instance, I ask them to write 305 but instead of writing 305 they wrote 300 and five, as in three zero zero and five"

The result of all this, he says, is that few of these children will be able, when adults, to get jobs enabling them to escape the poverty that surrounds them and their families.

Save the Children says that, in addition to rising food prices, there are several other factors that put children at risk of malnutrition across the developing world.

These include the reluctance of some mothers to breast feed their children and a lack of access to fortified foods.

The charity is calling on the British government to stage a world summit on hunger in London around the time of the Olympics when leaders from around the globe will be gathered there.

In the meantime, having already lost two children, Nasreen Khatoun from Bhagwanpure will need all her energy to stop the same happening to the two she has left.

"Every evening I come back worried for my children, there is nobody to take care of them while I'm away. I'm worried for their health.

"I skip my meals so that I can feed my children. I borrow, I even lie to somehow get money to feed them. Poverty breaks you down but you should be hopeful and strong.

"Till the time I have the strength and the will, I will fight. With whatever means I can manage, I will carry on."

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