India’s stunted children

Earlier this year, in a sweltering classroom in Delhi, I met a young Indian boy named Ram. His father is a watchman in a government apartment block, and the family live in the building’s garage. But there is no toilet, so Ram, a small, whipsmart and endearingly cheeky boy, must cross two busy highways to get to the overcrowded public toilet in a nearby slum.

Obviously, rather than risk this, Ram and his siblings sometimes do their business in the open near the apartment block, making him one of India’s 564 million people who practise open defecation.

Modern India has a massive middle class (the third largest in the world after China and the US), economic growth that makes market economists salivate and the third largest number of billionaires. It also has 250 million people with zero assets. Not even a radio. And, as Caught Short, a new report by WaterAid reveals, it has more stunted children than any other country. Nearly 50 million Indian children are stunted, including Ram. Probably because, like millions of other Indian toddlers, he was constantly exposed to disease carried by faecal particles he encountered when going to the toilet wherever he could.

A single gram of human excrement can contain 10m viruses, 1m bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs. Living barefoot and not washing your hands, you’re likely to ingest dangerous bugs with your food and drink, if you have any. Diarrhoea ensues; and any nourishment children do get is washed out by the bugs, stunting their growth and development. Half of all cases of malnutrition are linked to diarrhoea, says WaterAid. If a child experiences five or more cases of diarrhoea before the age of two, he or she may be stunted. Beyond that age, “the effects are largely irreversible”.

The original article appeared here