Veena S Rao | July 20, 2015
India’s malnutrition is back in international news, and for rather intriguing reasons. Some nasty articles have appeared in one of the most prestigious international magazines, the Economist – ‘Sparing Mr Modi’s blushes’, in the June 27 edition, and ‘Of secrecy and stunting’, in the July 4 edition. Regardless of its pretentions, the Economist appears to be more interested in the Modi/Gujarat government bashing, rather than dealing technically and scientifically with the subject of malnutrition in India, and why it persists so stubbornly in every part of the country.
Clearly, the Economist loves to hate Narendra Modi. It had to eat humble pie after the premises and predictions of its article on him in April 2014 were proven completely unfounded. And now, with a little help from some friends, they have found a new weapon to attack him with – malnutrition – for which India has been the world capital for decades, regardless of whichever party was in power.
The Economist, in its zeal to associate malnutrition with BJP governance, and more specifically with Modi’s Gujarat, has given a new and highly condemnable twist to India’s malady with its statement, “Coincidentally or otherwise, states run in the past decade by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party appear to be laggards compared with several states that are (or were) under control of rivals.” This is journalism at its basest, deflecting attention from addressing the extremely complex, heterogeneous and regional causes of this national scourge, and painting it with a political brush. Clearly, some very influential, anti-India lobbies have come to control the Economist, so much so, that it does not mind sacrificing its professional reputation of journalistic excellence for publishing unscientific, irrational junk. The Economist is doing great disservice to its reputation in general, and to the malnourished poor of India in particular, if it persists in its biased, non professional ways, deviating from its great tradition of rationality and truth.
I would consider it unethical, even for a rebuttal, to suggest that the Economist do an unbiased study of the states of India, check which parties were in power when, and what the nutritional improvements have been. But then, perhaps the Economist has already inspired several researchers to fund-raise for this novel and innovative analysis of India’s malnutrition. And who knows, there might also be enough donors for the cause, as it is a well known fact that India’s malnutrition is a source of a large number of livelihoods among researchers of all hues and nationalities, all of whom have been researching for decades, and producing no great ideas or viable solutions of how to successfully address the problem on the ground, except stating the received scripts of their donors, and their donors’ donors. From what is observed at the international level over the last decade, most agencies and researchers who claim to be concerned about India’s malnutrition appear to be a part of a cosy fraternity, circulating among each others’ organizations as their tenures run out, securing funds for issues that are least connected with providing any solutions to India’s problem, but providing adequate research opportunities for themselves. Their resounding mantra appears to be that everything, including common sense, rationality and innovation should be evidence (aka research) based, providing them enough research security for the future. Nationally, we hardly have any independent think tanks on the subject, except those that are tied up with international funding and must quote the same mantras if they must qualify for the funding.
But there’s a problem that the Economist, in all its wisdom, hasn’t even noticed. After having secured a leaked or pirated version of the Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) from wherever (there can only be two sources - either from one of the ministries or the Unicef), which it has brandished for sensationalism, much like some avant garde journalists waving leaked documents over our news channels, we find that the survey surprisingly reflects a dramatic improvement of underweight and stunting, and all other indicators, across the board. I’m really not quite sure if this conveys the right picture, if one juxtaposes it with the findings of the 3rd Repeat Survey of the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) in its Technical Report 26, 2012. In this report, the figures for undernutrition, stunting and wasting for children under 5 years, including in Gujarat, are far worse than those the Unicef India’s RSOC 2013-14. Agreed, that the NNMB report covers only rural areas in ten states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh. But I have undertaken the exercise of factoring the percentage of urban populations of these states with more favourable nutritional indicators than rural populations into the NNMB 3rd Repeat Survey figures for these states, and I find that the total figures reveal a statistically significant difference in rates of undernutrition, stunting and wasting of children under five years, between the NNMB 3rd Repeat Survey, per state, as compared with the RSOC, the latter giving much more favourable indicators. Space constraint does not allow me to provide the statistical details, but I will do so in my next piece. Logically, this was the kind of analysis that the Economist should have triggered. It is strange that the Economist has completely ignored the 3rd Repeat Survey of the NNMB Technical Report 26, while authenticating the unofficial and leaked RSOC report.
The Economist quotes a rumour suggesting that RSOC is not yet out because there is “official concern about the quality of data”. Well, I too have been informed that while the methodology and sample size for the national survey was considered valid, serious questions were raised whether the sampling methodology had adequate power to provide valid estimates at state level (The same purloined state data sheet published by the Economist). Considering also the wide divergence between the data of NNMB Report 26 and the RSOC, this just might well be true. I requested Unicef on July 9 to send me their methodology for the survey, but until now have received no reply. I cannot understand why Unicef is keeping its methodology under wraps. Following the same logic of the Economist, can it be assumed that there is indeed something questionable about it?
Now coming to the main point the Economist makes, that the RSOC is being withheld because it shows Gujarat in poor light, surely it must know that NNMB Report 126 was certainly not suppressed, and is available in the public domain in its website, even though it has the most unflattering Gujarat indicators. One can only conclude that there is some influential force within the Economist that is paranoid and obsessed with Modi, and is compelling it, against its better journalistic, intellectual and rational judgement, to spread disinformation that the government of India is suppressing this report because it is not flattering to Gujarat.
Since the Economist is quoting rumours, I assume I can take the liberty to do the same, for whatever it is worth. Well, the RSOC commissioned in 2013 by the previous government was supposed to have been published during its tenure, and would have provided it with a record of dramatic achievement for its election campaign. There was after all a close link between the National Advisory Council and Unicef. Unfortunately this did not happen, so the best that could be done in the aftermath was Gujarat and Modi bashing, for which the Economist with its past record of anti-Modiism became a natural partner. Well, this is just another rumour, like the one that the RSOC is being suppressed because it shows Gujarat in poor light.
Perhaps the ministry of women and child development, which is the nodal ministry for Unicef in the government of India, could provide more information to the public regarding the sampling and methodology problems and the real reasons why the RSOC has not yet been released. It could also try and check how such an unauthenticated and probably erroneous report reached the Economist, which it has published for sensational value against the government of India.
The Economist is well advised to get over its biases and this petty, mean stuff, and live up to its grand heritage and reputation. It even failed to compare Maharashtra and Gujarat incomes correctly. Bagehot would be frowning disapprovingly in his resting place.
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