India Rises, Leaving Poor Behind

Unlike in China, a leading physician activist says, India’s rising economic tide is not floating many boats to lift the poor up and out of poverty.

India’s rich and middle-class sectors are riding higher, getting richer, says Dr. Jonathan Fine, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group Physicians for Human Rights, while India’s hundreds of millions of poor people remain firmly anchored to the bottom.

Dr. Jonathan Fine

Dr. Jonathan Fine, speaking to UW students

“Things are actually getting worse in many of India’s rural villages,” Fine said on a recent visit to Seattle. The Boston physician spoke Tuesday at the UW to a student-run global health group. Fine was in Seattle to meet with — and recruit volunteers for — a local branch of an organization devoted to assisting India’s poor, Association for India’s Development.

Malnutrition rates tell the story of inequity in India, Fine said. Hundreds of millions of Indians continue to live on semi-starvation diets, he said, despite there being enough food in India to feed everyone and despite India’s overall economic progress.

According to UNICEF, China has reduced its rate of child malnutrition to 7 percent while in India today more than 40 percent of young children are malnourished – a rate worse than in many sub-Saharan African countries.

“Initiatives aimed at improving health and welfare won’t have much effect if malnutrition is not dealt with first,” Fine contended. Hungry people are more prone to illness, he said, and malnourished children don’t learn or develop properly. “The Indian government continues to largely neglect this massive problem.”

Nearly half of India's children are malnourished, photo by Mike Urban

Tapoja Chaudhuri, who teaches at the UW’s South Asia Center, and her soon-to-be-doctor husband Sunil Aggarwal (he gets his MD in a week), agreed with Fine’s comments and are, for the same reasons, planning to become more active in efforts to assist India’s poor. Both said the gap between rich and poor in India is growing.

Chaudhuri, who grew up in Calcutta, said there are terrible conflicts raging across many parts of India today due to these entrenched inequities. Though the government portrays the fight as against communist terrorists, Chaudhuri said the conflicts are fueled not so much by ideology but by the disenfranchisement of many poor communities. Government economic policies, she said, tend to focus on large-scale development projects rather than on anything that directly benefits the rural poor.

“It is not at all paradoxical to me that India’s rapid economic growth is accompanied by high rates of malnutrition,” Chaudhuri said. The way India is achieving its overall growth, she said, is by often bulldozing over – figuratively and literally — already impoverished communities.

Chaudhuri plans to work on social justice issues in India next fall while Aggarwal, who plans to someday go there as a doctor, completes his residency at Virginia Mason Medical Center.



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