Indian Economic Growth Has Not Improved Undernutrition

A recent Harvard study has found that India’s economic growth in the past two decades has not led to a decrease in levels of undernutrition in children under the age of five, suggesting that India should initiate more direct interventions for tackling child undernutrition.

The study found no association between India’s economic growth since 1992 and the rate of undernutrition in children, according to co-author S. V. Subramanian , associate professor of society, human development, and health at the School of Public Health.

According to Malavika A. Subramanyam, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, undernutrition plays a major role in preventing India from achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality. Children suffering from undernutrition also get more infections, which, in turn, leads to poorer health.

At the start of 1992, over half of Indian children under the age of five suffered from undernutrition, a problem that has been persistent and endemic in India.

The researchers measured undernutrition by examining stunting in children and found that rates have barely changed since 1992, during which time the Indian economy has seen significant growth.

Researchers say that there are two main underlying causes for the dogged persistence of undernutrition in India. First, many kids are being born to mothers who are anemic, under-weight, and not healthy enough to bear children. Additionally, India’s policy on undernutrition has focused too much on economic growth.

“While removing people out of poverty is good,” Subramanian said, “the problem is that the only section that is benefitting from the economic growth is the population that is driving it—a mere 25-30% of the total population.”

The study, a joint effort by the Harvard School of Public Health and the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, suggests that to make a dent in the MDG goals relating to hunger and malnutrition there needs to be broad-based economic growth.

“If one billion people in India were participating in the economic growth,” Subramanian said, “then I would find a strong association between economic growth and health outcomes.”

Subramanyam added that if economic structures can be improved at the household level, it will result in better nutrition among children.

The researchers propose that revenue generated from India’s economic growth should be spent on things that directly impact health.

Subramanyam said that the first thing that needs to be done is to channel revenue into a more efficient and efficacious implementation of existing health programs, such as the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme, which aims to prevent undernutrition among children under the age of six.

“Some programs and infrastructure already exist—we just need to provide enough funding for them to do their job,” she said. “This would be the minimum.”


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