Last week, I visited a small, standalone Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lodi Gardens, in Delhi, that could be part of the blueprint for a reinvented global sanitation system. Developed by pioneering Indian city planners, engineers, and geologists, it elegantly addresses the challenge of killing the pathogens lurking in pit latrines and septic tanks that aren’t connected to sewer systems. Safely treating faecal sludge is the next step in the government’s inspiring work in the field of sanitation with the Swachh Bharat mission.
The visit provided yet more evidence that Indians are on the cutting edge of innovations that are changing life as we know it. It is a terrible irony, then, that the sanitation crisis that is the reason for the plant in the first place leaves more than one in three Indian children chronically malnourished — and, therefore, starting life with a serious disadvantage.
India’s potential for economic growth is already huge — and it’s only getting bigger. Within a decade, the labour force will consist of a billion people, more than anywhere else in the world. It is thrilling to imagine how prosperous the future could be if India tapped into the talents of all its people. To do so, however, it must prioritise the health, nutrition, and education of every single Indian and maximise what economists call the country’s human capital.
Consider the impact of malnutrition on India’s future. Half of women and a quarter of men of working age suffer from anaemia, which puts sharp limits on their productivity. Half of pregnant women are also anaemic, which not only damages their health but also interferes with their children’s cognitive and physical development. Overall, the total cost of anaemia to India is 1.5% of GDP — malnutrition affects the current health and the future economic potential of the country’s population.
And then there’s the broader problem of growth stunting among children. Due to a wide range of factors, including inadequate nutrition, sanitation, and health care, many of India’s children’s bodies and brains won’t ever fully develop — and the effect is irreversible. According to recent evidence, each additional centimetre in a child’s height is associated with a 4-6% increase in wages when that child grows into adulthood. The good news is that the government of India has recently demonstrated a strong commitment to tackling malnutrition, especially through its Poshan Abhiyaan. This scheme is based on a sophisticated understanding of all the factors that contribute to malnutrition, and it makes sure that different ministries are working together to make progress.
Getting and keeping Indians healthy through efforts like improving nutrition and sanitation is a necessary step if the country is to fulfil its potential. But it’s not the only step. Investments in the education system are also an urgent priority, especially now.
A healthy demand for skilled workers and high-tech jobs will offer great opportunity for India’s growth, but India can only take advantage of this opportunity if Indians have the required knowledge and skills. The country has made phenomenal progress in enrolment in basic education but there is work to be done to improve the quality of teaching and ensure students are learning necessary skills.
Making sure that Indians are healthy and educated enough will make unprecedented economic gains possible, but not guaranteed. These investments must also be accompanied by a fundamental social change—gender equality. Indian women are healthier and better educated than they have ever been before, but because of gender norms, their rate of labour force participation is among the lowest in the world (about 25%), and it is actually dropping. Gender inequality is keeping educated, energetic women from building the Indian economy. Reversing this trend will not only empower individual women but also unlock huge opportunities for the country.
Fortunately, there are promising signs that the country is prioritising programmes to confront these issues. To take just one example, India is hosting the ‘PMNCH Partners Forum,’ which shines a spotlight on what’s working to help women and children in India and around the world to both survive and thrive by capturing and sharing the best ways to make sure they get the critical health care and nutrition.
When I was at the wastewater treatment plant in Lodi Gardens, I saw very clearly why addressing India’s sanitation problem is so important. It’s because healthy, educated Indians like those designing and building plants like this one, will transform the country and the world. Healthy citizens are more productive, and healthy children are able to reach their full cognitive potential, learn more, and earn a better wage. Ultimately, India will flourish when all its citizens — rich and poor, male and female — can seize the opportunities offered by the modern economy.
Mark Suzman is president, global policy and advocacy, and chief strategy office, Gates Foundation
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Dec 15, 2018 19:56 IST
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