3 min read.Updated: 18 Apr 2019, 08:47 AM ISTRukmini S.
Indians are taller than they were a century ago, but the generational growth in height may be tapering off in the country far earlier than in other south-east Asian countries
That Indians are among the shortest people in the world is now already well established, but could Indians, contrary to the global trend, be getting even shorter?
Between the two most recent rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the NFHS-IV in 2015-16 and the NFHS-III in 2005-06, Indian men on average were 1cm shorter, while Indian women remained roughly the same height. The biggest fall in male height came in Karnataka, followed by Jharkhand and Haryana. In aggregate terms, the decline in height falls within sampling errors, but at the least, there is no evidence of an increase in height. In the previous decade (1995-96 to 2005-06), average male height grew 0.5cm but six states saw a fall in their average height, according to NFHS data analysed by demographer Abhishek Singh and others.
In both the earlier decade and the latest decade, the greatest increments in female height were in Kerala. The biggest improvement in male height in the late 90s and early 2000s was in Kerala, while in the most recent decade, it was in Himachal Pradesh.
The shortest Indians—men in Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Jharkhand— are shorter than the average national height of men of comparable age in any country in the world. The tallest men, meanwhile—those in Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala—are taller than the average male height in at least 30 countries. The shortest Indian women—those in Meghalaya, Tripura, Jharkhand and Bihar—are as short as the shortest women in the world, those in Guatemala and the Philippines. The tallest Indian women—those in Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Kerala and Haryana—are taller than those in over 40 countries.
Genes contribute to only a small portion of adult height, while environmental factors including mother’s health, infant and child nutrition, sanitation and environmental pollution explain the bulk of the difference in growth in height between groups, research has shown. In India, forward caste men are the tallest, and scheduled caste and scheduled tribe men the shortest.
In 2016, a major study estimated adult heights across 200 countries of the world from the years 1896 to 1996. It found that while people were getting taller in most countries (except some sub-Saharan countries), the rate of change varied drastically across countries. The largest gains occurred in South Korean women and Iranian men, who became 20.2cm and 16.5cm taller, respectively.
There were also large gains in height in Japan, Greenland, some countries in Southern Europe and Central Europe.
But while people continued to grow taller in some Southern European countries, many countries in Latin America and some in South-East Asia including China and Thailand (Chinese people are not taller than the Japanese), not all countries will keep getting taller. The US was the first western country to stop growing, followed by north European and east European countries. In Asia, the rise in height in Japan stopped in people born after the early 1960s. In South Korea, the flattening began in the cohorts born in the 1980s for men and it may have just begun in women.
But in Bangladesh and India in South Asia, the rise in adult height seems to have plateaued at best, and this plateau has been hit at much lower levels of height than in East Asia.
Indians are not growing much although they are still 5-10cm shorter than Japan and South Korea were at the plateau. In fact, in the NCD-RisC database (the historical dataset created by a global team of researchers for the study), the height of Indian men has slightly declined every year from the mid-80s, starting from the cohort born in 1984, men who would today be 35 years old. Female height was still growing slowly. Indian men born in 1896 were on average 1 cm taller than Chinese men and 2 cm taller than South Korean men.
By 1947, Chinese and South Korean boys born that year would grow to be 4cm taller than Indian boys born the same year. By 1996, that height disadvantage had grown to 7cm in relation to China and 10cm in comparison with South Korea.
Seen over time, Indians are undoubtedly taller than they were a century ago. But at best, improvements in child stunting have not been fast enough to match India’s pace of growth, and at worst, Indians have finished growing taller far earlier than expected.