Skip to main content

Indian state's battle to build up its babies

By Mallika Kapur, CNN
updated 5:30 PM EDT, Tue October 16, 2012
Sister Shaikh gives advice to pregnant women on nutrition in India's western state of Maharashtra -- a region where many children suffer from malnutrition. Sister Shaikh gives advice to pregnant women on nutrition in India's western state of Maharashtra -- a region where many children suffer from malnutrition.
HIDE CAPTION
Educating about eating
Check up
Meal time
Keeping clean
Family values
Weighing in
Making progress
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 2006 report showed that 40% of Maharashtra state's children were underweight
  • Despite India's two decades of economic growth, malnutrition remains alarmingly high
  • Maharashtra working with UNICEF on program that focuses on first 1,000 days of child's life
  • Government-run anganwadi provide schooling, counseling and basic health care

Maharashtra, India (CNN) -- Sister Shakila Shaikh works round the clock. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

She says she only takes one day off each year during the Muslim festival of Ramzan. "I have to be here," she says, showing us her modest two-room health clinic in India. "The women of this village need me."

Nurse Shaikh is part of a community of health workers leading the battle against malnutrition in Ahmednagar, a poor district in the western state of Maharashtra.

Back in 2006, Maharashtra fared poorly in the Indian government's National Family Health Survey. The India-wide report showed that 40% of Maharashtra's children were underweight, an indication of general malnutrition.

India fights against malnutrition
Grammy winner sees Kenya's nightmare
Afghanistan's 'stunting' epidemic

"Data speaks," says Rajalakshmi Nair, Health and Nutrition specialist at UNICEF. She says it's a shame that a country that has grown economically has made very little progress when it comes to looking after its children.

Despite two decades of robust economic growth, levels of malnutrition in India remain alarmingly high. According to the 2011 Hunger and Malnutrition survey conducted by the Nandi foundation, 42% of Indian children under the age of five are underweight. That's more than Sub-Saharan Africa. The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says it is a "matter of national shame."

Vandana Krishna heads the Nutrition Mission of Maharashtra. She agrees that levels of malnutrition across India are very worrying but firmly believes the small steps being taken in the region will make a big difference.

Following the 2006 report, the Maharashtra state government teamed up with UNICEF to launch a new initiative that focuses on the first 1,000 days of a child's life -- starting in the womb. Krishna says this is the period when children are most vulnerable. But she adds, "It's also the window of opportunity. If you catch them at that age and address malnutrition and give them the right nutrition, the right childcare, some love and attention, then we can tackle this issue."

If you... give them the right nutrition, the right childcare, some love and attention, then we can tackle this issue.
Vandana Krishna, Nutrition Mission of Maharashtra

That's exactly what a team of health workers is trying to do across Maharashtra. Nurses like Sister Shaikh handle the early days. At her clinic, Sister Shaikh regularly holds counseling sessions during which she tells pregnant women what to eat and how to experience a healthy pregnancy.

Many of the women who come to her clinic are poor and illiterate. They used to have lots of misconceptions about pregnancy, says Sister Shaikh. For example, they would not take any vitamins because they would worry that pills would make the baby too big, leading to a difficult childbirth. "I started telling them, take your vitamins and folic acid tablets. Don't worry. Your body knows its limit. The baby will grow accordingly."

She tells us she's delivered 96 babies since April this year. All of them were above 2.5 kilograms. Not a single one was underweight.

Sister Shaikh continues counseling women for a few months after they give birth -- then, a team of anganwadi workers takes over. Anganwadi means courtyard in Hindi. Typically, a government-run anganwadi will provide children with a range of facilities -- pre-school, counseling, basic health care and meals -- around a central courtyard.

The anganwadis are playing a crucial role in fighting malnutrition in Maharashtra. At the center we visit, anganwadi workers check the height and weight of children twice a week and are constantly on the lookout for children who are stunted or underweight.

"My main goal is to keep the children healthy, both mentally and physically," says Hemlata Babasaheb Bagul who has been an anganwadi worker for 10 years.

One of the 24 children she looks after is moderately underweight. At two years and 11 months, Bagul tells us Sai should weigh 12 kilograms. She weighs 10.3 kilograms. So Bagul has got Sai's mother involved. She's told her what to feed the child and when to give her meals. She's also advised her to stock a low shelf with nutritious snacks such as peanut balls to that Sai can help herself whenever she's hungry.

Timely intervention likes this appears to be making a difference in Maharashtra.

Krishna says she's awaiting results of a state-wide survey on nutrition levels but tells CNN that early data shows malnutrition in children has halved in Maharashtra since 2006.

The key, she says is to focus on the first 1,000 days of a child's life -- and to find a few local heroes like Sister Shaikh.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:26 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
updated 7:09 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
updated 1:01 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
updated 10:48 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
updated 12:07 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
updated 7:15 AM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
updated 7:06 PM EST, Tue February 5, 2013
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
updated 7:37 AM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
updated 7:27 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.
ADVERTISEMENT