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India: Bihar steps up to the malnutrition challenge

Bihar is a changing face. I can vouch for this as someone who belongs to the state once subjected to mockery of being the damning side of India’s glory.

While India continues to hit the headlines with staggering statistics on maternal and child health, the state of Bihar has been in news for all the right reasons.

State of the World’s Mothers report this year puts India fourth from the bottom on the scale of ‘the best place to be a mother’ among 80 countries. These rankings are end of year marks on how well we look after, educate and offer opportunities to our women and children.

At the same time, Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has been setting an incredible example. It’s a striking demonstration of how political will and positive action can yield remarkable results. And it’s not that hard either.

Proof of change

We saw proof of this change in Bihar when we travelled to a Save the Children project area with popular TV actor Rajesh Kumar.

Actor Rajesh with health workers in Bihar

In the scorching summer heat we reached the village nearly an hour and a half from Patna, the capital city. As one would, we were prepared to see children who were malnourished and challenges faced by the community in accessing vital care and information.

Quite the opposite was the case. Our first stop was the anganwadi centre (a government-run programme across the country to provide nutrition for mothers and children).

We met with frontline health workers – a bunch of enthusiastic women, well informed and keen to bring about change within their neighbourhood, community and village at large.

“I wish we had someone to tell us how to take care of our health and our children’s. I got married at a young age and didn’t know anything about birth spacing or family planning.

“Now I work as a health worker with the government programme that allows me to give crucial care and information to adolescent girls, new mothers and their babies.  At least I can change things for others, even though couldn’t for myself,” said the health worker, who is also a mother of six.

Immunisation day at the Primary Health Centre

Immunisation day

When our newly appointed champion Rajesh reached the next stop – the nearest primary health centre which is nearly five kilometres from the village – we were in for yet another surprise.

The two-storey building was buzzing with activity – a big crowd of mothers and children had assembled. It was immunisation day.

A tour of the centre took us to an unbelievably clean maternity ward and newborn care unit. ‘Bihar is changing’, a recent rhetoric appears to be a tangible reality.

The medical officer of the centre, Piyush Sinha, turned out to be huge fan of the actor and couldn’t hide his enthusiasm at his visit.

After much ado and a grand reception we begin to talk about the issue at hand. He was quick to tell us:

“This is one of the oldest centres and predates India’s independence. I have been here long enough to tell you that Bihar has stepped up to the challenge of children’s health and nutrition.”

Eyewitness

By the end of the visit, we were soaked in sweat and quite beat with heat. Rajesh was taking in all he saw and getting ready for the press conference to follow.

“It’s one thing to read about the issue but quite another to witness the change first hand.

I was immediately struck with the awareness levels among the women in the village. But men were conspicuous by their absence,” said Rajesh in conversation with Save the Children team.

“I am a father of two boys and I take my wife’s and children’s health very seriously. Right from when they were born I have maintained a file with key dates and days for check ups and vaccines.

“A child’s health must be as much a father’s concern as it is of a mother’s. Women are taking the lead but men must come forward in full support.”

Change is possible

Bihar has proved beyond doubt that change is possible. It’s now being lauded worldwide for spearheading a health programme to tackle malnutrition among children.

Children in Bihar were going without nutritious food to provide them with the essential nutrients. To their enormous credit, the state-positioned health workers in 38 districts set up thousands of sites to hand out the vitamin supplements to children in the form of a syrup.

The effort by the government successfully reached 95% of all children under five in Bihar.  In the rest of the country, only a third of kids have the same luck.

If Bihar can do it, India certainly can.  Ensuring good health and nutrition for children builds not just a generation, but even the nation.

We know that fixing our problems needs political will and it needs plans. So let’s do this.  And let’s not wait for another damning report to come out putting us to shame yet again.

If we are to lead as a nation, we must put our women and children first.

 

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