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The other growth story

From The Business Standard

Indicus Analytics: The other growth story

June 30, 2011, 0:38 IST

Many Indian infants are still shockingly undernourished, especially in rural areas.

The prevalence of malnutrition in India is among the highest in the world. Given its impact on health, education and productivity, persistent undernutrition is a major obstacle to overall growth, especially among the poor. Following the World Health Organisation (WHO) Child Growth Standards, malnutrition is generally measured by three parameters — stunted (low height for age), underweight (low weight for age) and wasted (low weight for height).

World Bank statistics show that in 2006 around 48 per cent of Indian children below the age of five were too small for their age and 44 per cent were underweight. The corresponding estimates for China were 11 per cent and five per cent. Looking at the trend of malnourished children in 1992-93, it is obvious that India lags countries with similar growth patterns.

The third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), carried out in 2005-06, showed that the proportion of stunted children below three years declined by 11 percentage points. And the proportion of underweight children declined by five percentage points from 1998-99 to 2005-06. Over the same period, however, there was an increase in the proportion of wasted children from about 20 per cent to 23 per cent.

The 2005-06 survey showed that in rural areas, half of the young children were stunted, almost half were underweight, and one out of every five was wasted, while in urban areas, 40 per cent of young children were stunted and 17 per cent were wasted. Interestingly, despite the strong preference for sons in India, boys are as likely as girls to be underweight, stunted and wasted. NFHS data, in fact, note a strong inverse relationship between all three measures of nutrition and the level of the mother’s education, clearly indicating the impact of female schooling on the country’s health status.

There is large inter-state variation in the patterns of malnourishment among children. Looking at the proportion of children below the age of three, at least one in two children in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand is underweight. The situation is equally worrying in Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat where more than 40 per cent of the children are underweight. These states also stand out with a strikingly high prevalence of stunted children. The lowest proportion of underweight children is in Mizoram, followed by Sikkim and Manipur, while Punjab, Goa and Kerala also perform relatively well on this indicator. More than half the children below three years are stunted in Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

At the other end, the proportion of stunted children in the best performing states like Goa and Kerala is almost half of what it is in the worst performing states. Sikkim, Tamil Nadu and Manipur also show good scores with less than a third of the children estimated as being stunted.

Clearly, while aggregate levels of undernutrition are shockingly high, the picture is exacerbated by the significant inequalities across states. With numerous causes for malnutrition, it is only with a rapid scaling up of health and education interventions that the children of next generation India will lead healthier and more productive lives.

Indian States Development Scorecard, a weekly feature by Indicus Analytics, focuses on the progress in India and across the states across various socio-economic parameters.

sumita@indicus.net