India’s war against malnutrition is failing

Latest survey results show that the proportion of underweight children in India has remained largely unchanged over the past seven years


The proportion of underweight children was more or less the same in 2012-13 as it was in 2005-06 across the eight states for which data is available. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint
The proportion of underweight children was more or less the same in 2012-13 as it was in 2005-06 across the eight states for which data is available. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint

The third round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2005-06 had focused the world’s attention on India’s nutritional crisis. It showed that child malnutrition rates had barely improved since the early 1990s despite fast economic growth and fall in poverty levels. The recently published results of the District Level Health Survey (DLHS) show that India has not made much progress in the fight against malnutrition since then, and that the stasis in nutritional outcomes continues.

As the accompanying chart shows, the proportion of underweight children was more or less the same in 2012-13 as it was in 2005-06 across the eight states for which data is available. While rates of stunting (a measure of chronic malnourishment) have improved across these states, rates of wasting (a measure of acute malnourishment) have deteriorated in most states. Consequently, the rates of underweight (which is a summary measure combining the stunting and wasting indicators) have not changed much.

There are, of course, important variations across states. Karnataka has seen a big decline of 26 percentage points in the proportion of underweight children. Maharashtra has seen an improvement in stunting but wasting levels have shot up sharply, leading to a 1.7 percentage point increase in the proportion of underweight children. The pattern is similar for West Bengal, which has seen only a 1.3 percentage point decline in the proportion of underweight children.

Unlike the NFHS, the DLHS does not cover the entire country. It leaves out nine key states that account for the bulk of India’s malnourished children. We will have to wait till the results of the next NFHS survey, which is underway currently, to arrive at a full picture of how malnutrition rates have changed across the entire country over the past decade.

The preview provided by the latest DLHS results indicates that the final picture might not be very pretty.

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