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Some people say that inequality isn’t the issue. I say it is.

Written by Michael Dugher, MP for Barnsley East, Vice-Chair of the Labour Party and a Parliamentary Champion for Save the Children.

Read Day one | Day two | Day three

Day four

It’s day four of my visit to India with Save the Children and today we went to Dhapadhipi, the awful slums in the heart of Kolkata.

Our first stop was at a childhood nutrition centre where we met Pooja and Reba, two of the dedicated community health volunteers who work there.

Save the Children set up this centre as there wasn’t an ICDS (Integrated Childhood Development Scheme) centre in Ward 58, where some 3,000 children live.

The community health volunteers do home visits to check if there are pregnant or lactating mothers. Where they find them, the health volunteers offer advice on breastfeeding and nutrition.

They also measure the arms of the babies using a measuring tape, developed and provided by Save the Children, which has a simple colour code for healthy, moderately malnourished and severely malnourished (green-amber-red).

Save the Children is campaigning for the Indian government to provide these measuring tapes in ICDS centres.

Fighting malnutrition

The health volunteers provide advice on what to eat, offering ingredients and recipes that can be affordably sourced in the local area.

Nutritious food is grouped into three categories, colour-coded according to the three colours in the Indian national flag.

Children who are ill or severely malnourished can be referred to health centres. The ICDS centres are not designed to make public services redundant, but to encourage demand for them.

We met two year-old Pritam who suffers from Down’s syndrome. He was measured in front of us and his mother was delighted to see the measuring tape record green for healthy, when previously he had been a red for severely malnourished.

There was a red plastic bowl there so I turned it upside down and made a makeshift drum, which young Pritam banged enthusiastically.

Teaching mums

We then went to a nutrition counselling and child care meeting for mothers. Rina, a community volunteer – aptly known locally as a ‘change-maker’ – was cooking a healthy and delicious-smelling meal and teaching local mothers how to make it themselves. The meal was just for the children.

This was the first day in a 12-day ‘camp’ where the mothers come in for an hour each day (except Sunday) to learn how to prepare the meal, feed it to their children and get other advice on child care.

At the meeting, the mothers were taught about hygiene, as well as about immunisation, newborn care and other essential practices to keep their children healthy.

We spoke to Maumita, who has four daughters – Anjali, Arti, Anusha and Anamika. They are aged ten, seven, two and 12 months respectively.

Maumita, aged 25, asked me about my own children. I told her I have three children, two girls aged seven and five, and a boy aged nearly eight months. Maumita is still trying to have a son.

Like most people living in the slums, Maumita is a migrant. She is from Bihar and moved to Kolkata five months ago, where her husband works at the local tannery.

A stark contrast

As we drove through the slums you could see the people ‘rag-picking’ – which to you and I means physically sorting through bags of rubbish, separating plastic bottles, old sandals, or anything that might be sold.

In the intense midday heat, children, many in bare feet, helped sort through the refuse and the filth, living side by side with animals in the most unspeakable conditions.

As we left the slums, just 50 yards away were some smart apartment blocks with a high metal fence separating them from the slums, and where comfortable residents can park their four-wheel-drive cars in garages bigger than the homes of their slum-dwelling neighbours.

All of this happens in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Some argue that all we need to do is to keep growing the economy and eventually the prosperity and opportunities will “trickle down” to the poor. I’m not convinced.

Some people say that inequality isn’t the issue. I say it is.

 

 

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