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Devi Singh Adivasi, sitting with her mother Papo, is a one- year-old suffering from malnutrition in the Saharia Tribal village of Dehde, located in Madya Pradesh, India. Zackary Canepari for The Globe and Mail
Devi Singh Adivasi, sitting with her mother Papo, is a one- year-old suffering from malnutrition in the Saharia Tribal village of Dehde, located in Madya Pradesh, India. Zackary Canepari for The Globe and Mail

If India is booming, why are its children still starving? Add to ...

Devsingh Adivasi has baggy pants. Not literally - in fact, he has no trousers at all - but that's the term for a child like him: At two years old, he has rolls of slack flesh that sag below his buttocks and gather at his ankles, as if his skin was made a few sizes too big.

Devsingh is acutely undernourished. He is less than half the weight or height he should be; he's not able to stand on his own; he is intrigued by the small ball made of reed scraps his mother Papo has rolled for him, but does not have the energy to chase it.

He has never eaten a vegetable and never eaten a fatty food - never, in fact, eaten anything other than the flat bread his mother makes on a cow-dung fire every day or two. He nurses sometimes at her slack breasts; Papo herself, in her late 20s, weighs about a third less than is healthy. She says, softly, that she knows her son gets little milk from her and that she should eat more. "But what would I eat?"

Devsingh is one of six children, all of them malnourished. Each one of the 70 families in this village in the northern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has a child, or several, in a similar condition. But this is not a blighted place with a unique, horrible problem. What's most horrifying about it is its normalcy, across this state and across northern India.

Canadian parents have been invoking malnourished Indian children for three generations to encourage their own children to eat their crusts or lima beans. In that time, however, India has transformed itself from a land where millions of people died each year in famine to one whose explosive development has won it "emerging superpower" status. In the last 15 years, India's average annual economic growth has been 7 per cent.

It's expected to come close to that mark this year even amid the global economic crisis.

India has a booming information-technology industry, an exploding middle class and cities with sleek subway lines, neighbourhood sushi restaurants and rickshaw drivers who use cellphones. Last year it sent a rocket to the moon. But there is one thing that has not changed - the rate of childhood malnutrition, which still affects one in five children here and causes 3,000 infant deaths each day.

A staggering 40 per cent of undernourished children in the world are Indian; the rate here is twice as high as it is in all of Sub-Saharan Africa and five times higher than in China. The land of the economic boom finishes third-last on Unicef's global list of child nourishment, worse than either Sudan or Ethiopia. In fact, the number of starving children is increasing 2.5 per cent annually, while population growth is barely 1.4 per cent.

India's government itself professes shock that the situation has not improved as the economy has grown. "The problem of malnutrition is a matter of national shame," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said last year. There is a growing sense that the scale of the problem does not befit a country claiming superpower status.

"It is embarrassing," acknowledges Mahesh Arora, who heads the national child-nutrition program through the Ministry of Women and Child Development. "We are trying our level best. You must realize India is a huge country and some areas are doing much better than others."

Better is a relative term. In the north and east, at least 55 per cent of children are malnourished; in the south it is about 30 per cent. The Adivasi family lives in the worst of the worst areas, and what happens in their house - and what doesn't - does much to explain why the problem persists.

The family has some of the basic problems that plague people around the world, having no land, no assets, no cash to buy food nor any real way to change their situation. As elsewhere, efforts to help the very poor here have been marred by corruption and mismanagement. But these ills are exacerbated by a collection of factors peculiar to India, from a squabble over the philosophical legacy of Mahatma Gandhi to intractable battles over caste hierarchy to the uncommonly stark powerlessness of Indian women.

The Adivasis share their surname, derived from their group in the Hindu caste system, with their whole village. They are what's called a "tribal" group - an indigenous population at the very bottom of the traditional hierarchy. They own no land, and the soil on the land they have been allotted is rocky and infertile and rain is rare. Their village is a jarring hour's drive (not that anyone here owns a vehicle) down a dirt track off a rural road down a lousy highway that leads only to a small town with no industry or opportunity.

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