In 2012, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that the “unacceptably high" level of child malnutrition in the country is a matter of “national shame". Several years down the line, sample surveys indicate that more than a third of India’s children are stunted or underweight. Despite more than two decades of rapid economic growth, India continues to fail its most vulnerable citizens—children under the age of 5. The country’s failure is particularly disheartening as ensuring the basic nutritional needs of children is not just morally right but also economically smart, as it pays off in the long run. However, despite a slew of initiatives by multiple governments, progress has been slow and shaky. To nudge the country’s political elite to take swifter action, a new Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) paper titled Burden of Child Malnutrition in India: A View from Parliamentary constituencies recommends a novel approach. Perhaps for the first time, a team of researchers from Harvard University, Tata Trusts and NITI Aayog mapped child health indicators from the National Family Health Survey on to parliamentary constituencies. The Bahraich Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh has the highest share of stunted children, while Singhbhum in Jharkhand has the most number of underweight children. Both these parliamentary seats are held by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Interestingly, by going below the level of a district, unnoticed dark spots come into view. For example, in Mumbai Northwest, held by the Shiv Sena, the prevalence of wasting among those aged 5 or below is as high as 45%. Trouble spots on the child nutrition map other than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are strewn across eastern Karnataka, the northern edge of Madhya Pradesh and southern Rajasthan.
Until now, nearly every development indicator in India was measured through the lens of administrative zones. If anyone could be held accountable, it was the district collector, whose tenure was in any case relatively short. India’s lack of reliable data at the constituency-level has ensured the degree of accountability and the onus to show progress has been weak on both MPs and MLAs. However, as the EPW paper points out, elected representatives have significant levers of influence. Every Lok Sabha member has command over constituency-specific funds, which is allotted to each of India’s 543 parliamentary representatives. They can also exercise significant oversight over nutrition-specific schemes like Poshan. The fact that some of India’s best performing parliamentary constituencies (on child health indicators) are in the North-East and in West Bengal shows that significant improvements are possible even in relatively poorer regions. The next logical step is to drop one level below and create a similar map of assembly constituencies. That could spur not just accountability but also competitiveness, because no person would like to helm the worst-performing constituency in the country or a state.
As India heads into election season, the lack of verifiable parameters of performance for elected political representatives would only become starker. It’s time India’s development indicators moved beyond the current abstract administrative zones into the realm of electoral performance evaluation. Improving the well-being of India’s children is a starting point. Eventually, voters deserve voting booth-level information on how their representative performed on a slew of indicators. It’s time for some parity between the electors and the elected.