“Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas”, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s slogan for the 2014 elections proudly proclaimed to voters. Six years and a second term later, the clearest message a neutral gets is “Sab ko niraash, ek saath”. But this is not the true import of the message from this or indeed any other government, ruling party or opposition. The real scandal is that a country that calls itself a leader among emerging economies should have such dismal human development numbers 70 years after Independence. In 2019 we ranked 102 out of 117 countries in the Global Hunger Index. It says 90 per cent of Indian infants between six months and 23 months don’t get the minimum diet a child of that age requires. The official record shows that in 2018, 8.82 lakh children under five died of malnutrition. If that number holds good today, somewhere in the country a child dies of malnutrition every two seconds.

Slice it any way you like, a child in this country gets the shaft before anything else. Child deaths from seasonal diseases in the mosquito belts are an annual constant, brushed aside with a brutal “stuff happens” shrug of shoulder and roll of eye by the authorities. Everyone knows these deaths are preventable and what is needed, but empty posturing over human rights, women’s rights, cow protection and national pride seems far more important for politicians and parties. Properly stocking and staffing existing primary health centres in rural areas alone could prevent hundreds of deaths and cases of serious illness every year, but there is little will to make this happen. State governments are especially culpable in this matter, but governments at the Centre have not lived up to their rhetoric either.

The first All India Institute of Medical Sciences was set up in 1956. It took more than 40 years for the Centre to realise that this was a model worth emulation. Today there are 15 more of these facilities across the country, a grossly inadequate number for a nation of 130 crore in desperate need of quality treatment at affordable prices. For this population the Centre allocated ₹47,000 crore in 2017-18, or approximately 360 rupees per capita per annum for healthcare. So the majority of Indians have no option but to depend on the tender mercies of private providers and their predatory costing. Compare this to China setting up a 1,000-bed hospital in the city of Wuhan in a matter of days for patients affected by the Coronavirus. The announcement was made on January 24 and the facility is to be ready by February 3.

Governments are supposed to look to the future but in India, both by conduct and policy, they seem bent on dissipating the once-in-a-generation demographic dividend to the four winds.

India is a Babel of tongues, with 22 official languages, so planning for public education is something of a nightmare for policymakers. That it should still be grappling with the question of what language would be appropriate for primary, secondary and tertiary education is no surprise but for the majority of children primary education is a struggle between school fees their parents cannot afford, dysfunctional government schools with no teachers, no buildings and no books. Existing textbooks are usually out of date but even these are not always available. The result inevitably is barely literate students unable to cope with the burden of secondary school, especially language and mathematics.

A great many children come from a background of poverty, which makes private education an unlikely if not impossible prospect. It is a similar tale with tertiary education but in this instance even state universities are out of reach of the poor. As for vocational institutes, government-run facilities are few and far between and usually inadequate for the task. The result is that if you’re poor, young and Indian you will in general be unequipped to face the 21st century job market.

Against this reality, the muscular slogans of ultra-nationalism so beloved of this government and its devotees ring hollow but it seems they couldn’t care less. It is far more important to turn the nation vegetarian than to provide a protein-starved child with the occasional egg in his noon meal. No government can escape responsibility for this slow motion horror but its power and purse give the Centre an edge over the others. It does not take a genius to recognise that children are the future but the state at this moment seems too fixated on its sectarian circus to pay attention. Governments are supposed to look to the future but in India, both by conduct and policy, they seem bent on dissipating the once-in-a-generation demographic dividend to the four winds.