SUNITA VAKIL Development is meaningless if we cannot ensure survival of Indias most precious asset - its children. Child malnutrition is the biggest challenge our country is facing today despite a burning economy that boasts of nearly 10 percent economic growth annually. For an average Indian, development usually means providing a better life for his children. But unfortunately, as a nation, we seem to have turned our face away from the millions of children who continue to remain hungry, malnourished and sick in our country. Despite the fact that PM Manmohan Singh has referred to under-nutrition as a matter of national shame, nutrition deprivation among Indian children continues to remain widespread with one-third of the worlds undernourished children residing in India, its track record in reducing malnourishment is quite pathetic. Indeed malnutrition is the underlying cause of as many as half the deaths of children under five. Recent reports that malnutrition has reached epidemic proportions in most parts of Madhya Pradesh resulting in a large number of child and infant deaths should shock a nation that aspires to occupy a larger global economic space. It is deeply unfortunate that over 25 children have died of severe malnutrition in two villages of the Jhabua district in the past two months. Agasia and Madarani villages of the Meghnagar block have also registered as many as 27 deaths since October. The numbers are certainly disgraceful but what is more shocking is that most of these children were under the age of six. Some reports also suggest that severe malnutrition claimed the lives of 22 children in 48 days since August 2009 in Sidhi District. According to the UNICF, these figures are worse than the malnutrition rates prevalent in the Sub-Saharan Africa even though those countries are perennially plagued by famine, poverty and political instability. National Family Health Survey III data indicates that about 60 percent of the children in 0-3 age group in Madhya Pradesh are malnourished while 82.6 percent are anaemic. The infant mortality rate of the state standing at 70/1000 also paints a gloomy picture. All these deaths reflected poorly on India. But the problem is not unique to this state. National indicators are equally dismal. For, every second child under three in the country is malnourished. According to Indias third National Family Health survey of 2005-06, 48 percent of Indias children under the age of five are severely malnourished. The awful truth is that despite much touted intervention schemes spanning over decades, India has not achieved acceptable child nutrition levels. What actually explains such shameful trend is a slew of factors like a crumbling health care system, floundering welfare schemes and a yawning gap between the implementation and accountability. What is shocking is that a majority of these deaths can be prevented. A number of emerging economies have been successful in improving the nutritional status of their children by taking on the problem head on. For example, China reduced child malnutrition by more than half between 1990 and 2002. Brazil also reduced child under-nutrition by 60 percent from 1975 to 1989. Thailand reduced it by half in less than a decade and Vietnam by 40 percent between 1990 and 2006. These nations have proved that progress can be accelerated even in the poorest environment. India needs to learn lessons from these countries as poverty no longer seems to be an acceptable excuse for inaction. There is therefore no room for lame excuses. Much more needs to be done so that our young ones have at least a fighting chance of survival. This speaks volumes about our flawed system of governance which does not care for peoples needs. Although the country operates the largest child-feeding programme in the world, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the levels of under-nutrition are very high. There are also other programmes like Midday Meal Scheme and supplementary Nutrition Programme. But sadly enough, the trickle down effect of various targeted intervention programmes is abysmally poor. Clearly these schemes have failed to provide basic health care for Indias poorest children. While preventive programmes are key to improving child health, efficiency in implementation could have prevented many deaths. There is much the government can do if it has the political will and vision. The writer is a freelance columnist based in India.