New Delhi: Malnutrition among Indian children is set to come down by at least 5% and decline in total malnutrition by some 2% simply by the country shifting to World Health Organization (WHO) measurement standards.
Malnutrition in India is measured through the National Family Health Survey using a large-scale, multi-round process set up by the International Institute of Population Sciences (IIPS), a Mumbai-based deemed university that has been designated by the ministry of health and family welfare.
According to the survey, malnutrition is measured by the percentage of children below three years who are too thin for their age or underweight.
The new standards established by WHO using an international reference population show malnutrition at 40.4% against 45.9% according to 2005-06 survey, or NFHS III. For NFHS II conducted in 1998-99, malnutrition comes to 42.7%, according to WHO standards, 4% less than what was originally reflected.
“WHO now covers various developing countries such as Indonesia and Brazil when it is framing parameters for malnutrition and, therefore, we felt that this standard can be extended to India as well,” says one senior professor at IIPS who didn’t want to be named.
According to another Delhi-based researcher involved in the process, a presentation was made to the ministry a couple of weeks ago. The ministry still needs to take a call on the new norms. Ministry officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Incidence of malnutrition, according to NFHS, has tapered to 46% in 2006 from 47% in 1999 and 51% in 1993. But, going by WHO norms would mean that not only is malnutrition coming down but the decline is also faster.
The UN Millennium Development Goal says child malnutrition among children below five years should come down by one-third, with more attention to children below two years.
“Since WHO standards have a larger reference population, it may be a better measure of malnutrition,” says Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. “And, with various associated factors, such as income and educational levels rising, why should malnutrition not come down?”
Singh, however, conceded that a lot still needs to be done on improving the quality of life of a whole lot of children by providing them essential services.
The official website of NFHS still shows older malnutrition norms.
“WHO standards are generally perceived to be more sensitive, which reflect facts, by the academic community,” notes a Delhi-based professor in the area of population studies, who didn’t want to be identified.
Purnima Menon, research fellow at Delhi-based International Food Policy Research Institute, says that India should follow WHO norms, which not just cover underweight but also stunted (too short for age) and wasted (too thin for height) children. “It’s not always that if India adopts WHO standards that malnutrition will come down, it may rise if stunted growth is taken into account,” she says.
“The real challenge is to use your own standards, make an assessment based on them and then take corrective measures,” says Imrana Qadeer, professor at Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University.
WHO officials did not respond to the email sent to them.
The Union government has been running a flagship programme called Integrated Child Development Programme where 3,82,000 Anganwadis, the hub around which ICDS revolves, disburse nutritious food supplements and provide pre-school education, immunization referrals and other services, as part of the scheme.