MUMBAI: Funding cuts for welfare schemes by India’s government have contributed to child malnutrition in Palghar district in the western state of Maharashtra, where 600 children are said to have died of starvation this year, according to activists.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the government of Maharashtra on Wednesday, asking for a detailed report on the deaths within four weeks.
The NHRC’s notice came as State Women and Child Development Minister Pankaja Munde visited the affected villages in Palghar and pledged to implement a child welfare scheme.
“These children died because central government funding for welfare schemes was cut, and the state did not direct adequate funds for its scheme,” said Vivek Pandit, founder of Shramjivi Sanghatana, which works with vulnerable people in Maharashtra.
“We are not even 100 km from Mumbai, the big financial hub, yet we have children dying of hunger,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “It is such a shame.”
Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, malnutrition is rampant in India. Four out of 10 stunted children globally are Indian, more than in sub-Saharan Africa.
Almost half of children younger than five years – or about 54 million children – are stunted in India, a “manifestation of chronic undernutrition”, according to the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.
The residents of Palghar district are mostly poor indigenous people who are largely dependent on the government’s welfare schemes, Pandit said. Medical and healthcare facilities are also inadequate and hard to access, he said.
The situation has been exacerbated by funding cuts for welfare schemes by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
In a marked break with India’s socialist past, Modi slashed funding for a scheme that gives millions of poor children free food, pumping money instead into building more roads and ports, in his first full-year budget last year.
The deaths of so many children amount to rights violations, NHRC said in its note. State authorities must be conscious of the plight of residents, especially children, it said.
“We have to provide jobs, address poverty and make sure the children have adequate food,” Pandit said.
“We have the means, but there is no sympathy for the plight of these people, so little gets done,” he said.