India: sick from distorted development

India's sick

By Graham Peebles

India has recorded two decades of around 9 per cent growth, which has produced umpteen rupee billionaires who live in decadent luxury in the cities. Along with the government, which is seduced by all things corporate, they turn a comfortable blind eye to the hundreds of millions living in rural poverty and those in slums on the other side of town, where children play beside open sewage, where there are no functioning toilets or latrines, where child malnutrition is rife and where there are no health care facilities worthy of the name.

The billionaires sit aloft a hierarchy of corporate wealth and power. They tower over the lesser millionaires (in 2012 there were 152,750 US-dollar millionaires) and see in the far distance the upwardly ambitious that form a gaggle called the “new middle class”. This group of city dwellers has benefited greatly from 20 years of market liberalization and government reforms, which have shifted support from the needy to the corporate greedy, resulting in increased levels of rural poverty and a multitude of suffering. The United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) paints a vivid picture of Indian life after years of economic flowering. India comes in 136th out of 187 countries. Factor in inequality – “in each dimension of the HDI”, plus gender inequality, and India plummets even further down the table.

So, one must ask who is this growth for? Not the poor, the marginalized and dispossessed, the Dalit’s (“Untouchables”) or Adivasi (indigenous) people, the smallholder farmers, children and certainly not women.

Inequality and illness

The inequities in health care provision represent the extreme levels of inequality and social injustice pervading the country, as the Lancet makes clear, “mainly because of insufficient government funding for health”. Although the urban population continues to grow (currently thought to be around 377 million), by most estimates 75 per cent of the population – a staggering 900 million people – live in rural areas, where health care is appalling.

It is here in relation to health, disease and mortality that statistics have meaning to the people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), India as a whole accounts “for 21 per cent of the world’s global burden of disease”. The 21 per cent is concentrated in rural areas where diseases cause huge numbers of deaths that, correctly diagnosed and treated, are preventable. It is thought, for example, that over 2 million deaths occurred in 2008 due to preventable causes, such as diarrhoea, dengue, measles, typhoid and malaria. The middle and upper classes, seduced as they are by multinational Western exports of fast food, cigarettes and alcohol, have seen stark increases in obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular problems, records Health India.

Trapped into debt and crushed by the corporate takeover of the countryside, smallholder farmers, of which there are an estimated 120 million… are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of two every hour.

Mahatma Gandhi believed the soul and spirit of India rested in its village communities. He said: “The true India is to be found not in its few cities but in its seven hundred thousand villages. If the villages perish, India will perish too.” Neglected and ignored, rural communities are indeed perishing:

The Adivasi people, who have lived on the land for generations, are being displaced in their millions as mining companies move in to extract the bauxite, iron-ore and tin. Trapped into debt and crushed by the corporate takeover of the countryside, smallholder farmers, of which there are an estimated 120 million (down 9 million since 2001), are committing suicide at the unimaginable rate of two every hour. Huge infrastructure projects are underway throughout the country, the waterways are being swiftly privatized and millions of villagers, with no access to adequate health care, are dying.

Within rural areas there is a dire lack of health care resources – human and material, including medicines, as well as properly equipped primary Health care centres. Although India is said to have a universal health care system administered by the various states, up to 60 per cent of the population do not have access to adequate health care provision.

The conurbations, with just 25 to 30 per cent of the population, have four times more doctors and three times more nurses than the primary health care centres in rural India. This means that, of the latter, almost 10 per cent have no medical staff at all, 40 per cent are without laboratory technicians and almost 20 per cent lack a resident qualified pharmacist. As a result of this dearth of medical support, 50 per cent of all villagers have no access at all to allopathic healthcare providers, 10 per cent of all babies die before their first birthday and 50 per cent of all rural babies are likely to be permanently stunted for want of proper nutrition, according to Health India.

Water and waste

Limited access to safe drinking water, coupled with non-existent sanitation in rural areas and city slums, is a major factor in the spread of parasitic and bacterial infections, causing disease and malnutrition. Over a third of people living in villages have no access to toilets, while 50 per cent of the population defecate in the open. In addition, UNICEF says, “44 per cent of mothers are disposing of their children’s faeces in the open”, resulting in “a very high risk of microbial contamination (bacteria, viruses, amoeba) of water, which causes diarrhoea in children”. This in turn is the primary cause of childhood mortality. Within rural families, only 11 per cent “dispose of child stools safely”, while “80 per cent are left in the open or thrown into the garbage” and, shockingly, “only 6 per cent of rural children less than five years of age use toilets”.

Drinking water is another major source of disease, and while UNICEF says access to safe sources of drinking water has improved (from 68 per cent in 1990 to 88 per cent in 2008), with under a quarter of slums dwellers having access to this most rudimentary of needs, inequality poisons even their most basic human right. The problem is made worse by falling levels of groundwater, groundwater pollution and the widespread natural occurrence of “arsenic and fluoride in the groundwater”, which pose a major health threat. Proper sanitation methods and clean drinking water are not an issue of concern within the high-rise middle class city developments, or the gated communities in Delhi and Mumbai: they have toilets, bidets and mineral water. It is the 75 per cent that are left without health care, with restricted access to safe drinking water and no sanitation facilities. Where has the 9 per cent growth gone?

Poverty sickness

The divide between the tiny percentage that have benefited from economic development and market liberalization, and the vast majority that have been condemned to a life of extreme poverty and illness, is approaching cosmic proportions. Most people live in rural areas, but the beneficiaries of growth have primarily been city residents, where wealth is concentrated in the coffers of a handful of men. It is said that the 100 richest Indians own wealth equivalent to 25 per cent of the national gross domestic product (in 2012 annual GDP was 1.84 trillion US dollars and, while Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, earns 18 million dollars a year, two-thirds of the population, according to the World Bank, live on less than 2 dollars a day. The two decades of 9 per cent growth begins to rise to the divisive surface.

Two decades of economic growth have granted great benefits to the Ambani’s of India, but no improvements to the lives of rural people, and in particular have effected no change to health provision. Child malnutrition, for example, which at 48 per cent is the highest in the world, fell by just 1 per cent in the years since 2001.

Poor health care provision for women sits within a broader, horrific picture of gender inequality and prejudice, state neglect and female suffering.

Gender inequality compounds the economic and social divisions in the country. The treatment endured by women is universally appalling across a range of areas. Rape is endemic, female infanticide is widespread (12 million girls were aborted during the last two decades, according to the United Nations, dowry killings commonplace: a trinity of abuse at the top of a list of mistreatments suffered by Indian women (specifically but not exclusively poor women).

Add to this poor maternal health, causing 57,000 maternal deaths in 2010 (one mother dying every 10 minutes, most of which occurred in rural areas), making India home “to the greatest burden of maternal, newborn and child deaths in the world”, according to the WHO. Forced marriage, although illegal, is commonplace, causing almost 50 per cent of Indian women to (reluctantly) marry before they reach 18, resulting in early pregnancies, high morbidity and mortality rates, to say nothing of the unrecorded levels of depression and anxiety. Poor health care provision for women sits within a broader, horrific picture of gender inequality and prejudice, state neglect and female suffering. Collectively, according to a recent study by TrustLaw, they make India the worst country for a woman to live out of the G20 nations, one place below Saudi Arabia.

Private public

Health care is offered by public and private providers: with the public primary health care centres understaffed, under-resourced and with restrictive opening times, as well as long waiting times and in many cases sited miles from villages, the majority of visits (92 per cent) are made to private centres. Around 70 per cent of private visits are made by city dwellers. They pay for their care by making “out of pocket” payments, i.e. not covered by health insurance, which, the Guardian newspaper reports, only 11 per cent of the population possess. The private sector has the monopoly on medical staff and materials, with, according to government figures, 80 per cent of all doctors, 26 per cent of nurses, 49 per cent of beds and 78 per cent of ambulatory services working for the corporate boys. Care is expensive (up to nine times the cost of primary health centres), and consistent with corporate irresponsibility (sanctioned by government neglect and weakness).

The middle class have become rich; the rich have become super rich; the super rich stellar rich.

With 9 per cent growth for two decades, one would expect a major level of government investment into health and education. However, this is far from the case. Spending on public health care, according to the WHO, is 1.1 per cent of GDP, placing India below Pakistan, China and Nigeria in the spending table. Cash (or out of pocket) payments are increasing (up to 80 per cent ) among those who have the money, but for the majority health care is an unaffordable luxury. In a country with more people living in poverty than all sub-Saharan African countries combined, an additional 40 million a year are estimated to be forced into destitution by medical costs.

So where has the growth gone; who is it for; who has benefited from the “economic miracle”? The middle class have become rich; the rich have become super rich; the super rich stellar rich. This tiny group of city beneficiaries has, as Arundhati Roy puts it, “ascended into outer space from where they look down at the indigenous people and the poor”. As for the poor, their numbers have grown, their land has been stolen from them, their problems increased. They have been condemned to a life of illness, exploitation and suffering. And their voices are ignored.

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