New Delhi, Nov 13 : Five-year-old Payal has patchy brown hair and her hands and legs as slender as twigs. She is also pot-bellied -- the typical symptom of malnutrition. For her, it makes no difference that Wednesday is Children's Day.
Although she is five, she looks like a two-year-old, and clings to her mother.
There are days when Payal, who lives on Delhi's bustling streets with three siblings, goes without food.
"We all live here. This is our home," said the girl, pointing towards the pavement where she stays with her brother, sisters and parents.
"Whatever we get (by way of alms or whatever her parents are able to sell), we use it to buy food. We distribute what we get. But some days, there is nothing," says Payal, as she dashes towards a car at the traffic junction to beg.
On Children's Day, millions of children like her have little to celebrate. Their life is marked by struggle, and they cannot be assured of three meals a day.
Many of them suffer from malnutrition, and education is not even a concern.
Construction worker Roopa would like a better life for her children.
"Milk, vegetables and grains: the prices of all these are soaring. I take my 12-year-old son with me for work and the other two are at home. We need to survive," she told IANS, sitting in her one-room shack in Kali Basti.
"I would like my children to have their meals three times a day, but there are days when that is not possible," she told IANS.
According to UNICEF, prevalence of stunting in India is higher than in sub-Saharan Africa. While 48 percent of Indian children under five years of age are stunted, the figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 42 percent.
"Children should be considered highest national priority. Malnutrition is a complex issue as it is not a question of food intake only. Health and sanitation also play vital roles," said social activist Harsh Mander, who has been appointed commissioner by the Supreme Court in a case on public distribution system.
"We have asked the government to address certain issues, including that a child, whether or not in school, should get midday meal. Migrant children should get the benefits of the Integrated Child Development Scheme and midday meals," Mander told IANS.
Quoting 2005-06 National Family Health Survey figures, Soha Moitra, regional director-north, Child Rights and You (CRY), said in India, more than 40 percent children were underweight, and almost 45 percent stunted.
"Forty-nine percent of world's malnourished live in India," she said.
"Each ministry works in isolation. The women and child development and the health ministries should work together for the future of children," she said.
She said many schemes did not take into account the interest of children.
"We simply take them for granted. For example, the midday meal scheme does not function in many schools. And will the children have the same food each day?" she said.
A UNICEF report says only 33 percent of Indian children receive services from anganwadi centres; less than 25 percent receive supplementary food through the Intergrated Child Development Scheme and only 18 percent have their weights measured at an anganwadi centre.
"At many anganwadi centres, the workers are underpaid and most do not report properly. They alone cannot be blamed. There is a lack of accountability, right from the frontline worker to policymakers," she said.
Quoting a study, Sylvia George, field worker of an NGO, said 74 children of 1,000 in the country did not live to see their fifth birthday.
(Prathiba Raju can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)