A new survey published this week tells us that eight out of ten among the middle-class in cities across India underestimate the levels of child mortality.
If you consider yourself middle class then apparently there is a high chance you are unaware that after 20 years of high and sustained economic growth, nearly two million Indian children still die every year of conditions like pneumonia and diarrhoea, and of complications related to pregnancy and child birth.
Though nearly 60 per cent of those surveyed felt that the problem of child mortality was “very serious” in India, a staggering eight out of ten did not know that nearly two million children under the age of five die every year. This is the highest anywhere in the world.
This is a crucial insight for Indian organisations like Save the Children who have made it their mission to build a campaign to tackle the high levels of child mortality. But does it actually matter what the middle classes think?
We think it does. The middle class in any country hold an influential role in society. And at the moment there is very little pressure from this group for action largely because of the lack of awareness of the scale of the problem.
There is also little knowledge of how simple the solution is. We do not need a major expensive technological breakthrough for India to tackle the high rates of child mortality.
We need skilled personnel available to support mothers during child birth, early postnatal care, preventive and curative treatment for pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria; and support for nutrition, including exclusive breastfeeding.
Other countries, many of them poorer than India, are making dramatic changes. And the performance of some of India’s states, like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, shows what others could accomplish by pursuing similar approaches.
However those campaigning and working to tackle child mortality in India have yet to gain real traction on the issue among this influential section of society.
We might now be saving tigers or turning off our lights once a year but we appear to have still not taken to heart the fate of our own children – this is unusual for a nation that prides itself on its love of children.
For campaigners this is a challenge if we want child survival to become a key metric by which India judges its success in development. We need to bring child and maternal survival in to the discourse on inclusive growth and national pride as rates of mortality are a much more telling indicator of development progress (or the lack of it) than per capita income.
We need to be linking the child and maternal survival cause to questions like ‘what are the rewards of economic growth, if not creating a better society?’ or, ‘What kind of India do we want to become?’.
In many ways, India stands at a crossroads in respect to child mortality so can high rates of mortality be consigned to India’s past, or will they remain an indelible stain on its future?
The United Nations Millennium Development Goal Review Summit in September is the right moment for India’s political leaders to affirm decisively that it is the former course that they want to pursue, with high level commitment and with urgency.
On the table for discussion will be a proposed Global Strategy for maternal and child health put forward by the UN Secretary General. As the country with the highest number of child deaths anywhere in the world, there remains a particular obligation on the part of India to demonstrate leadership on this issue.
But in the end the Summit in September is but one moment. The change needs to happen in every village, district and state with high child mortality and there needs to pressure for this to be a national political priority.
If the middle classes were to mobilise around this issue for all mothers and children then faster change is very possible. With the requisite political will and the right policies, India can secure drastic cuts in child and maternal mortality and truly shine in the global arena.
This is why organisations working to tackle child and maternal mortality are working together and targeting politicians, business leaders, media, film makers, celebrities and musicians to take up the issue and make it heard.
We are trying to link the more affluent communities to those facing the reality of high child mortality. It is encouraging that when faced with the information about the scale of the problem 74% of those surveyed said they would be somewhat likely or very likely to do something about child mortality and 83% per cent had hope that the situation can be improved and or fully solved.
We are seeing evidence of this already. Save the Children’s own Facebook network in India includes thousands of young supporters, our twitter campaign to help children in Leh was supported by Bollywood stars and generated thousands of hits on our donation pages, schools and colleges are starting their own campaigns about the issue and partnerships with media and businesses are building.
With the spirit for progress that currently exists it is truly possible that India can become a child survival champion and show the rest of the world how to bring about large scale changes that saves the lives of mothers and children.
India is playing an increasingly crucial role on the international stage and now has an opportunity to be a respected player on the world stage in all fields.