Playing politics with malnutrition

IN Media Practice | 03/09/2012
The media have ignored poverty-driven malnutrition among the women of Gujarat while dealing with Narendra Modi's"beauty" statement.
What has been specifically left unaddressed is the State’s expenditure on Muslims, says RICHA KAUL PADTE.
In a Wall Street Journal interview resulting in a furore on both television and in the print media, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was questioned about the high levels of malnutrition in the State. In response to the fact that Gujarat boasts some of the most alarming statistics in the country on this issue, part of Modi’s response was as follows:
“It came to our mind that Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian State. And secondly, Gujarat is also a middle-class State. The middle class is more beauty conscious than health conscious--that is a challenge. If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they’ll have a fight. She’ll tell her mother, ‘I won’t drink milk. I’ll get fat.’ They have money but she’s beauty conscious, she’s not health conscious… So a lot needs to be explained to both the beauty conscious and the health conscious. We have to request them that there should be a good nutritional situation.”
Given the blatant confusion of the beauty industry with malnutrition and an obviously skewed class analysis of his own State with far-reaching implications, there are multiple grounds on which to call into question Modi’s outrageous comments. There has, indeed, been extensive media coverage on the issue; however, it has almost solely focused on the Congress Party’s response to Modi’s interview. Interspersed with a couple of statistics on the State of Gujarat’s poorer women, The Times Of India reports that over 50% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 were found to be anaemic in the State.
The print media have only presented the criticism and analysis of Modi’s comments through the framework of a political battle between him and the Delhi leadership. What remains acutely missing from this reportage is a genuine engagement with and analysis of Modi’s comments from a Gujarati and national gender- and minority-rooted perspective, which seeks to present voices and realities beyond those of two political parties. In a Congress-versus-BJP debate, lacking in any critical analysis, the real implications of Modi’s comments remain shrouded.
Reality ignored
Conflating the issue of malnutrition with “beauty concerns” facing middle-class people, Modi first and foremost ignores the reality of malnutrition in Gujarat. According to data from the International Food Policy Research Institute, 44.7% of children in Gujarat are underweight, 22.3% of the population is undernourished, and 6.1% of the children who die under the age of five die from hunger. These are statistics the media--and by convenient extension the Congress Party--have not shied away from. They have also not failed to link these figures to the comment that Gujarat is a “middle-class State”.
An article entitled, ‘Where’s my glass of milk?’ in The Times Of India cites the following: “The Indian Human Development report 2011: Towards Social Inclusion released in October says 64.5% of children from the Scheduled Tribes in the age group of 0-5 are underweight in the State. This is much higher than the State average 44.6%.” Other news reports and editorials, including those from The Hindu and The Indian Express have discussed the levels of malnutrition in Gujarat as being high “particularly among the tribal people and its rural and female population” (Indian Express).
However, what practically every report has failed to highlight is that among the various groups of people living below the poverty line in Gujarat--31.8% of the State’s population according to a report by The Planning Commission: a figure that deeply cuts through Modi’s callous comments about the preponderance of the middle-class--the figures are highest amongst the State’s Muslim population. A study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research draws attention to the fact that urban poverty among the State’s Muslims is eight times higher than that of caste Hindus, and 50% more than OBCs. These chilling statistics coming out of a State whose Chief Minister’s Islamophobic legacy precedes him--despite being legally exonerated from his alleged role in the 2002 riots, many still continue to hold him complicit in the genocide of Gujarat’s Muslim community--have been completely ignored in the print media’s reporting of the issue. Whether this lack of reportage derives from the Congress Party’s or the English media’s disdain to this specific angle, the realities of malnutrition in Gujarat can be assumed from the poverty statistics to have its most debilitating effects on Muslim girls and women living in the State, an issue that no one seems to want to call Modi up on.
In an article titled “Modi faces Congress ire over remark on malnutrition” reports, “Gujarat Congress President Arjun Modhwadia said Modi's statement was an insult to women. ‘This statement is not only a joke on woman but also an insult to the women of Gujarat. The most anaemic are tribal women and tell me from where are they beauty conscious? The government is not looking after them; there is very little expenditure on women,’ Modhwadia said.” In this battle between two political parties trying to score points against each other, what remains very specifically unaddressed is State expenditure and attitudes towards Muslim women and the wider Muslim population.
No analysis
Furthermore, there has been little to no analysis of Modi’s throwaway conflation of the beauty industry with the issue of malnutrition, and the fact that it simultaneously mocks those who suffer the grave consequences of poverty and hunger, as well as those who are forced into often life-threatening physical conditions by the pervasive effects of advertising campaigns and weight-loss programmes. Modi no doubt uses the idea of the beauty industry to continue his propaganda against “western influences” that are destroying the “Indianness” of Indian women; however, eating disorders are indeed a reality for many urban women in this country (see articles in The Hindu, BBC News and India Current Affairs for more information). Needless to say, the women who suffer malnutrition as a consequence of poverty and those who live with eating disorders are two very distinctive economic, cultural, and social groups. However, the consequences of what they face can and do, both lead to undernourishment and death. As a result, it is not simply enough for the media to print comments like those of Congress MP Girija Vyas, who says in the Times of India: “Modi is not only hiding the cases of malnutrition but also making mockery of girls. Girls are of course figure conscious, what's wrong with it? Today girls are going ahead…” Without a critical analysis of the fact that, in reality, there is indeed something very “wrong” with the ways in which young women who belong to the urban middle classes--not the women who are dying from malnutrition in Gujarat--are consistently being pushed into the belief that to “get ahead” in life one must have a modelesque figure, all that the readers of the print media are left with is a defence of an increasingly negative and pervasive industry by a political leadership that has shown little to no interest in advancing the rights of women in their country.
The English media’s coverage of the issue leaves glaring gaps in its refusal to engage with ground realities, and instead provides a platform for party politics. The choice to make the Congress Party the major opponent in the Modi and malnutrition debate is undermining to those who have been working both locally and nationally to advance the rights of women--something the Delhi leadership has shown little political will to advance, as evidenced through their lack of support for various progressive bills including the Sexual Assault Bill and the Women's Reservation Bill (The Hindu).  Furthermore, the decision to leave the question of the Muslim community and Muslim poverty out of the debate is highly questionable in light of the BJP’s and Modi’s stellar roles in the march of Hindutva. This refusal to engage with minorities by wealthy Hindu-owned media as they report on the “debate” between wealthy Hindu men is deeply telling of both media priorities and political priorities in the country today. “For the wealthy by the wealthy” is not journalism; it is propaganda. And with no PR team behind them, the people on the ground are once again rendered irrelevant.
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