by Marion Nestle
Jan 12 2012

Some thoughts on high rates of child malnutrition in India

The New York Times reported a shocking statistic yesterday: about 42% of children under age 5 living in India suffer from malnutrition and are “wasted” (low weight for height). 

The figure comes from the Hungama survey of 73,000 Indian households conducted by the Naandi Foundation.  It reports an even more troubling statistic: nearly 59% of Indian children under age 5 are “stunted” (low height for age).

The Hangama report holds one hopeful note.  Rates of childhood malnutrition in India fell by 20% during the past 7 years.

But have they? 

According to a more detailed analysis in today’s New York Times

Despite the recent boom years of the 1990s and 2000s, there has been little improvement in overall nutrition in India, according to United Nations data. About 20 percent of India’s over 1 billion population remained “undernourished” during that time, meaning their “food intake regularly provides less than their minimum energy requirements.” The most recent”Global Hunger Index” shows that two-thirds of the 122 developing countries studied had reduced hunger levels in recent years, but that hunger levels in India have increased.

Ending malnutrition is a matter of political will.  If India wanted to address childhood malnutrition in any serious way, it could. 

How?  Feeding programs are emergency measures.  Long-term solutions require institution of social programs:

  • Promote breastfeeding,
  • Educate and empower women
  • Build toilets
  • Clean up water supplies
  • Eradicate worms
  • Reduce income inequality    

Two recent books summarize the research behind these ideas and explain what causes widespread hunger and what to do about it.  They make it clear that eradicating childhood malnutrition should be a first priority for any government:

  • Olivier De Schutter and Kaitlin Cordes, editors: Accounting for Hunger: The Right to Food in the Era of Globalisation (Studies in International Law), Hart, 2011.
  • Per Pinstrup-Anderson P and Derrill D. Watson II: Food Policy for Development Countries: The Role of Government in Global, National, and Local Food Systems, Cornell University Press, 2011.  
  • chuck

    interesting. it is pretty widely know that vegetarian/vegan diets are low in protein. vegetarianism is very common in india. you have already illustrated how important protein is in building lean muscle mass. wheat is a cheap and common component of a vegetarian diet. many studies have tied wheat consumption to stunted growth in children. maybe there is more to this story than meets the eye.

  • The sad truth (regardless of the stupidity of the troll’s statement) is that many Indians ARE obese: on the one hand, children are starving, on the other, many are facing the same struggle we do:

    It’s horrifying in our day and age that this kind of hunger still exists.

  • IRememberWhen

    What an important and timely article, Ms. Nestle! Two years ago my company opened an office in India, and we were there for 7 months. We went on many trips to the country to visit temples and other landmarks.

    As we drove through the more remote villages, we noted 2 encouraging trends – the UN had painted some sanitation rules on the walls on major buildings in the villages, and some effort at building public sanitation was underway. So in some parts of the rural South, spotty progress was observable.

    However these villages were “45 rupee a day” villages – these people lived on about US$0.90-1.10 a day for extended families of 8. All the children we saw playing in the village squares were quite small and many had the tell-tale “pot belly” of malnutrition.

    These villages had often 1 public radio in the village hall, powered by bicycle. Quite a few had no functioning schools.

    Our trips were often slowed by political parties holding rallies. Popular parties go from village to village to distribute large sacks of flour. If the men of the family go to the rally, they get 1 10-kilo sack of whole-wheat or “graham” flour for making chapati, or Indian flatbread. If they join the party, they get 2.

    Obviously if you live on $1 a day, a free 40 pounds of flour is an enormous benefit to you. It seemed clear to us as travelers that many of the poorest rural people would do anything to gain as many flour sacks as they could – register multiple times with different parties, pay unrelated people 2 rupees to pretend to be in their family so they could claim flour, etc.

    The final observation we had was that dalit or “untouchable” villages were even poorer than the rest, and we saw far fewer flour-campaigns in those villages as we drove through. In India, caste still matters when it comes to hunger.

    Food in India needs to be divorced from politicking, that is my observation.

  • Jennifer Feeney

    Look at the list. Latrines and clean water, worms, promote breastfeeding (a clean wholesome source of food)…As I saw when I was in Niger, West Africa, most of the malnutrition was a result of unsanitary conditions, not calories. Children had chronic diarrhea and the result was dehydration and malnutrition. Children who were weaned before 2-3 years old were likely to die within the year due to exposure to pathogens.

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  • What horrendous statistics. It’s not just a matter of political will though – I think it’s also political means. In a country of 1.1bn, only 33.3m paid income tax in 2010, according to official stats…

  • fuzzy

    It bothers me when people talk about 1 billion people and starvation in India and don’t even MENTION population control. Almost all our problems can be traced back to “too many people”. Most of our problems could now be addressed by admitting that we have enough people on this planet and then try to reduce our populations across the board so that in 100 years we have some fraction of what we have now. Until we stop reproducing past our means we’ll always have poverty, starvation, famines, wars, and a planet wracked by pollution with poisoned water and air and a scarcity of natural resources. If we’re not going to spread into space we need to have an eye toward stewarding this planet instead of consuming it.

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