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Photo: Mint

Hunger pangs in India may have just gotten worse

One of the mysteries associated with India’s rapid economic expansion over the past three decades is the persistence of hunger and malnutrition, especially among children. A recent survey shows the country may be slipping further, instead of improving. Mint explains.

One of the mysteries associated with India’s rapid economic expansion over the past three decades is the persistence of hunger and malnutrition, especially among children. A recent survey shows the country may be slipping further, instead of improving. Mint explains.

What do the NFHS findings indicate?

In a number of large states, the proportion of children under 5 who are underweight has risen, compared to the previous National Family Health Survey (NFHS) round in 2015-16. Even relatively advanced states like Gujarat and Maharashtra have recorded a slide in the nutritional well-being of their children since 2015. This is contradictory to what should ideally happen in a growing economy, since rising prosperity should improve access to food. The ground situation in 22 states and union territories was captured in phase-I of the survey—which was interrupted by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.

Could this be a fallout of the pandemic?

The NFHS surveyors had started fanning out to households across the country since mid-2019. The exercise of reaching out to over 600,000 households was likely to last a year, but those plans were disrupted in March. Thus, the phase-I results have nothing to do with covid-19 and are an indication of India’s nutritional state before March. If anything, the prevalence of hunger is only expected to have shot up in subsequent months. The first official glimpse of covid’s economic impact may, thus, get captured in phase-II, which will cover key states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The results will be out by May 2021.

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Does the NFHS cover issues beyond nutrition?

While most of India’s nutrition policies are based on NFHS data, the survey also tracks over 60 other indicators. They cover a range of key socio-economic and health issues, ranging from fertility, prevalence of vaccination, treatment of childhood diseases. On a positive note, the recent survey has recorded nascent uptick in women’s access to internet and banking.

Why has the situation worsened since 2015?

India has been a poor performer in global hunger indices, often ranking behind even poorer Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. But it has at least managed to show improvements over its own past record. 2020 may be an outlier when even this kind of progress might not happen. A 2017-18 consumption survey by the National Statistical Office had shown a steep drop in monthly per capita consumption in rural India. NFHS-5 indicates economic woes were real in late-2019 and in early 2020 too, even before covid.

What are the long-term implications?

Children cannot meaningfully participate in school or end up in highly-skilled, well-paying jobs if they do not get adequate nutrition. They will also never fully become a part of the consumer economy. Besides, there is proof that nutritional deficiencies, particularly stunting, can leave inter-generational effects. Thus, improper attention to nutrition will have long-term costs. India also has a very short window to give a better deal to its children, since it is expected to start ageing by the middle of the century.

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