Health minister faces two Indias, obese and hungry

yogaIndia plans to introduce yoga in schools to fight rising obesity among middle-class youngsters, even as the country continues to battle widespread malnutrition and "shameful" infant and maternal mortality.

Health minister Anbumani Ramadoss said the country faced a "galloping" rise in heart disease, diabetes and cancer as India's 300-million-strong and increasingly wealthy middle class ate more junk food and lived more sedentary lives.

At the other end of the spectrum, the country had some of the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, he told medical experts at a workshop.

"We have one India which is galloping on the economic front ... while in the other India, human development indices say we are 126th in the world," Ramadoss said.

"We have on one side undernutrition and on the other side overnutrition," he said.

Ramadoss said health and lifestyle classes would be introduced in schools along with yoga to teach everything from nutrition to AIDS awareness.

"Yoga can go along way in reducing such diseases as hypertension, diabetes," he added. "This should be made mandatory in all schools."

Health officials will meet education bureaucrats in coming weeks to outline a plan to introduce health as a subject in schools "as soon as possible."

India is the diabetes capital of the world with 37 million diabetics, many of them obese children, official statistics show. Unless action is taken, 80 million could be diabetic by 2030.

A private hospital in New Delhi recently conducted a study of 7-to-14-year-olds and found 23 percent were obese and 17 percent were hypertensive, and blamed junk food and lack of exercise.

"This is alarming, especially for their future health," said Dr. Anupam Sibal, group medical director of the Apollo hospital chain, which carried out the study. "Teaching them about good nutrition and exercise will be very welcome."

On the other side of the coin, India still experiences an under-one infant mortality rate of 56 per 1,000 live births, and an under-five mortality rate of 74, barely below Eritrea's 78 and more than double Indonesia's, U.N. figures show.

"I am ashamed," the health minister said. "We have the IT revolution ... but then we have this pitiful infant mortality."

Health officials say 70 percent of Indian women are anemic and 20 percent of adults are undernourished or suffer "from chronic energy deficiency."

"India is on its way on becoming a superpower, but unfortunately, 50-60 percent of children under three years are undernourished," Ramadoss said, adding the government aimed to better coordinate rural health programs.

© 2006 Reuters