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Sanjay Suri
Friday , July 27, 2012 at 11 : 41

Finding chinks in Dr Binayak Sen's 'chronic famine' theory


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It's true rather than traitorous to acknowledge that India will not win many medals at the Olympics. In track and field events we are almost not in the running at all in any sense. We're not the athletic sort and all around we see evidence of that. We think we were, most of us, just born that way, and then poverty did, or undid, the rest. We're not fit for the Olympics.

The 'burgeoning' middle class has begun to show some muscle and movement and the beginnings of appearance in world sports but it's going to be some time before our national anthem gets played in the vicinity of five rings in the company of the best athletes. At the moment, after the decline of hockey, our medals have come in events for sahibs like shooting.

The trouble with much of the burgeoning middle class is its burgeoning bellies. But too fat, too thin, the question either way is whether most of us simply lack the bodies for the job. The too much we see from our city eyes, the too little perhaps not so much. From the population of 1.2 billion, subtract an undernourished population of undetermined number that lacks trainable bodies for an Olympics like job. Just how big or small is this population?

Dr Binayak Sen, that close and controversial pal of the Naxalites, told a meeting in London earlier this summer that India is in a state of "famine". Famine, if famine it is, is not known to produce athletes. Dr Sen was in London to receive a Gandhi Foundation award, along with Bulu Imam, the campaigner from Hazaribagh against open mining practices.

The Olympics weren't on anyone's mind at that meeting they could hardly have been. Pole vault and the 100 metres dash are not for the undernourished. The meeting was concerned with Dr Sen's take on the emerging economy.

"I work in a common area between the practice of human rights and the practice of medicine, particularly the science of nutrition," Binayak Sen told the meeting. "I'd like to draw your attention particularly to a situation that exists in India today regarding nutrition of which not many people are aware. There is a situation of famine, a chronic famine that is ongoing in India as we speak."

Not of the apocalyptic type "with people falling dead on the streets," he said, "but we do have a famine, and I can substantiate this with government figuresThe National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) publishes repeated surveys, and their figures show that around 37 per cent of Indian adults across the country have a body mass index (BMI) - which is a measure of nutritional adequacy - of below 18.5, which is held to signify chronic undernutrition." So, famine in that sense.

To this Dr Sen added the sinister suggestion that among tribal people, in certain regions, and among minorities, the incidence was as high as 60 per cent. "This famine is not an accident," he said. "It is a famine that is being induced by forces that are at work in society today."

Hawkish guests at the meeting were finding rich pickings here. As were a couple of ISI chaps (I suspect even they don't believe any more that nobody knows them). But is it the case that Hindus quite visibly swell past the upper BMI limit while most Muslims never make it to the minimum as the good doctor implied? Such differences with the minorities are clearly not apparent. Or even perhaps with tribal people.

As a city chap I'd hesitate to say anything about those we call tribals, even to use that word 'tribal' for fear of being intrusively incorrect. But I do admit I always thought the people we refer to when we say tribals are not starving but just naturally slim, given a naturally active lifestyle unlike city folk - barring the naturally lucky, the particularly disciplined, or that tiny smattering that drives to a gym every now and then.

That some tens of millions of tribal people in India could be thin because they might be short of food is not what I'd have thought possible. Not all of India is shining of course, but I wouldn't have thought so much of it is starving.

BMI is a tricky basis for those very pointed digs the good doctor was making. BMI has always seemed to me a matter of concern for people who are inside cars longer than they should be, in travelling spells between one food experience and another. I confess it has meant to me the upper limits breached, not the lower limit not reached. But given Dr Binayak Sen's natural and unalterable love for Naxalites, or the legitimately angry people we call Naxalites, it did seem the good doctor could have been overstating this case for famine.

This BMI test is, to start with, an uncertain one, going by the encapsulated wisdom on the matter to be found in Wikpedia, that global shortcut to deep knowledge. The stated acceptable range for healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. But Wikipedia lists many sophisticated and more telling variations, and notes that one scale does not hold for different kinds of populations. And it notes that experts have said that it works particluarly differently for Asian populations.

A global BMI scale developed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine places Micronesia and Tonga in first and second place (both Pacific islands of 100,000 each growing fat on US aid) with an average BMI of 33.45 and 32.68, followed by Croatia, Samoa, Argentina, Kuwait and then the United States - with 29.45. The UK is 28.37, Italy 27.32, Fiji 26.44, France 26.22, Nigeria 25.26. China is 23.77, India 22.71, Pakistan 22.18, Afghanistan 21.66, Sri Lanka 21.44, Nepal 20.63, and at the very bottom of the table Bangladesh with 19.37.

This list does not indicate necessarily a progressive slide into undernourished poverty, not with China there at 23.77. The one obvious pattern here suggests body frames short of the big European and the beefy American - apart from a few overfed islanders. Talking conspiracies of the Binayak kind, the lower average in Bangladesh is not induced by forces similar to India squeezing in the poor some more. There is no suggestion that the few Hindus there are lighter.

BMI makes at best an uncertain link between weight and wealth: poor Tonga with a per capita income of $7,400 manages to be fatter than the United States at $49,000. France is on a par with Fiji. And if 18.5 to 25 is the acceptable range, India averages an apparently healthy 22.71 unless that is as Dr Sen suggests, because the minorities and the tribals are severely undernourished, and the rest far too fat. In any case, neither sound Olympian.


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More about Sanjay Suri

Sanjay Suri is political editor for Europe with the Network 18 group. He has been reporting on international affairs out of London for close to 20 years. He was earlier chief reporter with the Indian Express in Delhi. He has a master's degree in English Literature from Delhi University and in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics. He is also author of Brideless in Wembley, a collection of Indian stories out of Britain.
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