Home / Opinion / Why is the Modi government withholding malnutrition data?

On 13 October, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released the latest Global Hunger Index, which showed that India had made giant strides over the past 10 years. A detailed analysis can be found in this Mint editorial. The central concern was that IFPRI’s deductions were based on data that is not available in the public domain. This cast a big shadow on the validity of the data as well as any analysis one might attempt on its back.

The joint study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the ministry of women and child development, conducted in 2013, was reportedly submitted to the government in June this year. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has not shared these findings with anyone barring IFPRI. There too, it has supplied IFPRI with a single number, without any disaggregated details.

The crucial bit was that the Unicef data showed that India had reduced the proportion of underweight children under the age of five by a considerable margin since 2005.

This led to a rather awkward moment during the Together for Nutrition 2014 press conference organized by IFPRI in the capital on Wednesday. One of the reporters asked the most obvious question: “If indeed India has done so well on nutrition, then what are the reasons?"

In the absence of detailed data, all that the experts could say was “We can’t be sure. We just have one number."

Obviously, it is not IFPRI’s fault. Nor is it the case that there is little understanding on what is required to bring about improvements in malnutrition—on the contrary, there is a lot of research, especially with IFPRI, that details the necessary and sufficient conditions. But in the present case, IFPRI as well as Unicef, which conducted the countrywide study, is helpless to elaborate on what caused sharp improvements in the past 10 years because the BJP government appears shy to share the data.

The period in question—2005 to 2014—is co-terminus with the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) two terms at the Centre. As such, the inexplicable non-availability of detailed data, which may provide some positive hue to UPA’s scam-ridden rule, is being increasingly questioned by researchers across the board -- even within Unicef. Many are now wondering if nutritional research and policy analysis are getting compromised at the altar of competitive politics.

This is a serious issue because enough research has shown that improvements in malnutrition require the coming together of multiple factors. As such, while rapid economic growth or greater agricultural productivity are necessary conditions by themselves, they are not sufficient for improving nutritional outcomes. This is because timing, apart from several other factors like status of women, plays a big role in improving nutrition. The health status of pregnant mothers and the nutritional status of children in the first six years of age, especially the first two years, are crucial determinants. In fact, nutritional deficiencies in the first few years are irreversible.

That is why it is important to not only identify which policies worked for improving nutrition, but also protect them from political transitions. Researchers, who have to defend successful policies from new regimes, call it “inoculating against political change."

A good example is that of Mexico’s conditional cash transfer scheme called “Progresa". It was started in 1997 by President Ernesto Zedillo to bring down poverty and improve health and educational outcomes. However, with a regime change in 2000, there were doubts whether it would be continued despite its effectiveness. As it turns out, researchers were able to convince new President Vicente Fox and the scheme was rechristened “Oportunidades" and allowed to continue.

The question then is: will the Narendra Modi government throw the baby out with the bath water or would it invest resources in spotting the effective policies from the UPA tenure and say to them, “may the force be with you!"

Policy Puddle runs each Thursday and comments on public policy developments.

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