Promises are not enough

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Every party issues an election manifesto, promising to empower women, eliminate dowry and prevent female foeticide. But such promises rarely translate into action because once elections are over, manifestos are forgotten. To make them meaningful, manifestos should mention time-frames for promised action

It is election manifesto season again. This fortnight, at least half-a-dozen proclamations will issue, encompassing every facet of nation-building — from defence and foreign policy to public order, from agriculture and rural development to industrial policy, from employment generation to education and health, ending with programmes for women, minorities, Dalits and Adivasis.

In the wide gamut of ideas that go into the crafting of manifestos, the paragraph devoted to women and children perhaps has the maximum agreement among parties. Unlike Indo-Pak relations and US foreign policy where there is little harmony, there is universal accord on enforcement of the minimum age of marriage, registration of marriages, fulfilling the unmet demand for contraception, elimination of dowry and female foeticide. All these intentions are common features of every manifesto but it is ironical and unfortunate that despite this unison, progress has been frighteningly slow with each year’s delay fraught with irreversible consequences.

When every single survey shows how adolescents of both sexes continue to be married well before the legal age (for example, 59 per cent boys in rural Rajasthan and 69 per cent girls in rural Bihar-NFHS-3) it is no wonder that compulsory registration of marriage is disregarded by society. National party manifestos, therefore, need to spell out how the goals would be achieved. This is critical for two reasons: India can never hope to become a superpower until malnutrition, child mortality and the world’s worst record of stunted and wasted children continue to make headlines. Second, very early marriages and repeated pregnancies are the root cause of much of the problem, yet little is being done to alter that.

How can a country like India afford to overlook the circumstances that are responsible for the birth of generations of unwanted, undernourished and underweight children? Mothers in the lower wealth quintiles are even today producing five to seven children well into their forties, until nature, disability or death ends the unwanted cycle. A country, which does not bother to provide women with the tools to withstand unwanted fertility, is perpetrating inequality. A country that is comfortable with being overtaken by small, less endowed neighbours and least developed countries with not even a fraction of its resources cannot be respected. Becoming a world-class economy is unattainable with such social indices.

Here are my prescriptions of what should go into the health, women and children’s part of a right-thinking manifesto:

Compulsory registration of marriages, although decreed by the Supreme Court, does not have a parent (Ministry). The Registrar General of India counts births and deaths but not marriages. The Ministry of Women and Child Development enacted a new law on prevention of child marriage, but thereafter has treated outcomes as “a State responsibility”. Data on registration of marriages is not being collected under that enactment and nor is there any enforcement at the district level. For this very reason a sensible manifesto should announce that the modalities to be implemented will follow within six months of holding elections. This alone can address the blight of adolescent pregnancies that perpetrate the cycle of malnutrition and the birth of underweight infants. Enforcing the legal age of marriage is the most important link in the chain but short-sighted political aspirants refuse to get involved. That is precisely why responsible parties need to show the way.

The contents of medical and nursing education should be revamped to make it of direct relevance to people in rural areas. Take one example: Skilled surgery offers sterilisation to a woman within a minute, without any preparation for an operation, without disrobing herself or undergoing the trauma of hospitalisation. But doctors passing out of medical colleges are not taught this technique. Because family planning is a low priority for MCI and population growth is not a concern. A thinking manifesto can alter that and multiply access to what women really need.

In China, 48 per cent of people’s contraception need is met by IUCD. India produces this 10-year ‘no pregnancy’ miracle device indigenously, but it is not used by the private sector which provides 80 per cent of medical care. Overall, the use of this device is less than two per cent in India. China thought this through and made this highly effective, reversible device readily available.

India needs a manifesto that promises to make reproductive rights a reality; without that women’s empowerment will never become a reality.

A Health Manpower Commission should be set up to forecast the next twenty years’ needs of technical staff and paramedics like nurses, physiotherapists, medical technicians and public health workers. Already an appalling shortage exists. The need will explode as life expectancy goes up. Thinking on this has not even begun. A declaration in the manifesto can make it a reality.

A national party’s manifesto is expected to espouse causes that affect millions of Indians. A party (or parties) that wishes to steer the ship of state should be passionate about improving social and health indices. Ultimately a country’s progress is judged by those indicators and not how many Indians drive cars or use mobile phones.

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