Melinda and I will visit India later this month. I’ve been there many times over the years, but I’m especially excited about this trip.
For one thing, India has reached some remarkable milestones in health. Earlier this year, the country was officially declared free of the polio virus for the first time ever, which is a huge accomplishment not only for India but for the global effort to eradicate the disease. Now India is starting to roll out its first home-grown vaccine, which protects children from rotavirus—a disease that each year kills more than 100,000 children in India and 400,000 worldwide. Overall, childhood deaths there have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1990.
All this adds up to a pivotal moment for India: If the country seizes the opportunity to improve health even more, especially for its poorest citizens, it can help hundreds of millions of people improve their lives and share in the country’s prosperity.
On our trip, Melinda and I will get to meet with several government leaders. We plan to do a lot of listening. Prime Minister Modi has made key commitments in some areas where our foundation works, like improving the health of women and girls, giving more people access to toilets, and expanding banking services to the poor. We hope to talk with India’s leaders about how we might help accomplish some of their goals.
Take India’s amazing efforts to fight child mortality. Along with the Health Minister, we will help launch a new plan for saving newborn lives by reaching every mother and baby with basic services. We’ll also see the leaders of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of the poorest regions in India, for updates on efforts to strengthen the health systems there. We’re learning a lot through our partnerships there and hope they will ultimately serve as a model in other developing countries.
Sanitation is another priority. The Prime Minister has called for ending open defecation by 2019. Today some 630 million people in India—roughly half the country’s population—don’t have access to a toilet. That has terrible consequences: Poor sanitation will leave 62 million Indian children too sick to reach their physical and mental potential. It’s a tough challenge that requires building new infrastructure, developing new ways to handle waste, and persuading people to change longstanding hygiene habits. Among other things, our foundation co-hosted a Reinvent the Toilet Fair in India earlier this year, and it will be great to talk with the leaders there about how we can work together even more.
A third big goal of India’s is to extend banking services to every household in the country by next August. Giving poor families a safe place to save their money is one of the most effective ways to help them move out of poverty, but right now, fewer than half of Indian adults have access to a bank account. Our foundation’s work on reaching the unbanked puts a special focus on using digital technology, so we’ll be discussing that in detail.
No matter how many times I travel to India, I always come home impressed by the energy, intellect, and innovation I see there. I’m sure this time will be no different. I’ll post a few thoughts about the trip after we get home.