Viva Cuba, Once Again

In 2000, certain Millennium Development Goals had been decided upon by the UN, these ranges from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015. These goals form a blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions. 

One of these millennium development goals is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger and also the reduction of child mortality rates. But, with the alarming figures that, appeared in a recent report from the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF), which states that, presently there exist in the developing world, 146 million children under five years old who are underweight. The percentage of underweight children in different region of the world are -  28 % in sub-Saharan Africa, 17 in the Middle East and North Africa, 15 in East Asia and the Pacific, seven in Latin America and the Caribbean. The table is completed by Central and Eastern Europe, with 5%, and other developing countries, with 27%. 852 million people go hungry – 53 million live in Latin America. In Mexico alone there are five million 200 thousand undernourished and in Haiti three million 800 thousand, while worldwide over five million children die each year of hunger.  According to United Nations estimates, it would be very costly to achieve basic health and nutrition for everyone in the Third World. To achieve that goal an additional 13 billion dollars annually would be needed – a figure that has never been achieved and that is meagre when compared to the trillion each year spent on commercial advertising, 400,000 million in narcotic drugs or even eight billion spent on cosmetics in the United States. Now, in the light of these figures it can be said that for most part of the world, the Millennium Development Goals seem to be a far-off reality. 

Amidst these numbers telling of the harsh realities of the world, the figures that, Cuba had to offer, tipped the balance the other way (even if only slightly). Cuba does not have any of the problems mentioned earlier, it is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has eliminated severe child malnutrition, thanks to government efforts to improve the nutrition of people, especially those most vulnerable. Despite shortcomings, difficulties and serious limitations for economic, commercial and financial activities imposed by the United States embargo for more than five decades, Cuba does not show desperate nor alarming rates of child malnutrition. None of the children under five years who are underweight in the world today is Cuban. 

This will not be the first time that, Cuba has led the way in terms of social development. According to the UN's World Health Organization, Cuba's health care system is an example for all countries of the world. During her visit to Havana in July of 2014, Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), impressed by the country's achievements in this field, praised the Cuban health care system: "Cuba is the only country that has a health care system closely linked to research and development. This is the way to go, because human health can only improve through innovation," She also praised "the efforts of the country's leadership for having made health an essential pillar of development.” WHO noted that the lack of access to care in the world is by no means a foregone conclusion arising from a lack of resources. It reflects, instead, a lack of political will on the part of leaders to protect their most vulnerable populations. The organization cites the case of the Caribbean island as the perfect counter-example. Moreover, in May 2014, in recognition of the excellence of its health care system, Cuba chaired the 67th World Health Assembly.

Even in light of the recent developments in Cuba, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says that, this is the nation with more progress in Latin America in the fight against malnutrition. The Cuban state guarantees basic food basket that allows the nutrition of its population at least in the basic levels through the distribution of regulated products. Similarly, the State makes economic adjustments in other markets and local services to improve the nutrition of the Cuban people and to alleviate food shortages. Especially, a constant watch on the livelihoods of children, girls and adolescents is maintained. Thus, attention to nutrition begins with the promotion of better and natural way to feed humans.

Now, to bring back the focus back home, India also has very dismal figures to offer. About 20% of children under-age five in India are wasted, 43% underweight and 48% stunted. In terms of numbers about 54 million children under five years in India are underweight which constitutes about 37% of the total underweight children in the world. In India, 25 million children under five years are wasted and 61 million are stunted, which constitutes 31% and 28% of wasted and stunted children respectively in the world. Now, if we were to talk of individual states, it might come as a surprise to many that, Modi’s much acclaimed Gujarat model, fails miserably and the children of the state are far from ‘Achhe Din’. 

In March, 2015 it was disclosed in the question hour of the Gujarat assembly that, over 6.5 lakhs children in the state suffer from malnutrition across the state. This is not a recent development but, rather, an improved figure over the years. In 2011-12, there were 12, 60,096 malnourished children, and the number came down to 11, 21,215 in 2012-13, after which it reached 7, 35,803 in 2013-14. (Modi’s third time in the CM office began in 2007 and till 2012, while, his fourth time began in 2012 but was cut short in 2014, as he moved onto bigger things.)

According to the National Food Survey 2007, there was a decrease in the number of children with malnutrition in India by one per cent compared to the previous survey. However, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were the only two states which showed an increase in the numbers. Earlier 47% of children in the country were malnourished. The figure fell to 45.9 in 2007 for India. According to the 2007 survey, the number in Gujarat grew to 46% as against 45% in the previous years, similarly in MP the number increased to 60% from 54%. (During this time, MP also had a BJP government, with Shivraj Singh Chauhan in office, who is the incumbent CM also.) It was also seen in 2014 that, Gujarat seemed to be doing nothing in terms of implementation of the Food Security Bill.  The state had been providing subsidized grain to only 7.35 lakhs families under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and to 24.33 lakhs below poverty line (BPL) families. But officially the state lists had an additional 71 lakhs families as above poverty line but did not provide them any subsidized grains.

Our state of West Bengal has also not been performing well. It has emerged as a region infamous for acute malnutrition. Pregnant or lactating mothers and the children are the worst affected. In 2012-13, just three districts of the state - Birbhum, Purulia and South Dinajpur were considered heavy burden districts in terms of malnutrition levels in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), conducted by the Union health ministry. During the 2013-14 financial year, the number increased to eight with Burdwan, North Dinajpur, Cooch Behar, South 24 Parganas and Jalpaiguri being added to the list. And it was said that, by 2014-15 all 19 districts of the state would be deemed heavy burden districts. 

Thus, the figures which, our country has to offer though are disheartening to be faced with, but the comparison to the Cuba model also, proves that, it is possible with limited resources to implement an efficient social development system and can be made successful if the political will exists to put human beings at the centre of the project.