India ranks 3rd from bottom of the world on malnourished kids

Sonu Jain, Indian Express,October 14, 2006

NEW DELHI, OCTOBER 13: Yet another report confirms India’s losing battle against hunger. In the Global Hunger Index, India ranks 117th for the prevalence of underweight children. Only Bangladesh and Nepal are worse-off.

Overall, India is ranked 96th out of 119 countries covered by the index, which doesn’t paint a rosy picture per se. But India comes off far worse in its record for malnutrition in children, as measured by body weight.

The proportion of children found underweight in India, according to the latest figures is 47.5 per cent, which makes it worse than conflict-plagued, drought-stricken Sub-Saharan Africa, where the figure is some 30 per cent on average. India’s figure is also worse than that of individual Sub-Saharan countries.

These findings are from a report released globally today by the Washington-based International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI).

The Global Hunger Index combines three indicators: child malnutrition, child mortality, and estimates of the proportion of people who are calorie-deficient.

The index has been calculated for 1981, 1992, 1997, and 2003. The latest round ranks 119 countries, of which 97 are deemed “developing” and 22 “in transition.”

Speaking to The Indian Express on phone from Washington, the report’s lead author Doris Wiesmann said the two major factors for India’s low ranking were that per capita food availability did not increase from 1997 onward, and that child malnutrition rates remained at very high levels, with more than 46 per cent of children under five years being underweight.

India is a different story from Sub-Saharan Africa. A higher proportion of the population (33 per cent) is calorie-deficient there than in India (21 per cent) or South Asia as a whole (22 per cent). The sub-text to India’s dismal showing is malnutrition in children under five.

“Mothers, who are usually children’s primary caretakers, and their education, nutritional knowledge, well-being and status in families and communities are particularly important in this respect,” said Wiesmann.

The results are a direct fallout of the low status of women in Indian society, several earlier studies have pointed out.

“In India, women eat the last and the least, increasing the chances of anaemia,” she explained. This practice partly explain why 83 percent of women in India suffer from iron deficiency anaemia, as opposed to about 40 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not surprisingly, one-third of the babies born in India are born with low birth weight, compared to one-sixth in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It has been observed that the women who have a say in the family, allocate more resources to their children’s nutritional needs. Men have other priorities,” she said.

There have been other studies that have explained India’s presence as a hotspot despite its growing GDP.

Lisa Smith, a IFPRI research fellow, and Usha Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor at Emory University, identified three factors contributing to the nutritional status gap between South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa in a recent study.

The first, making by far the greatest contribution among the three, is women’s status, followed by sanitation and urbanization

The implication for policy is clear: in the interests of improving child nutrition, women’s status should be raised.

The study also concluded that in regions where women’s status is low, programmes to improve child nutritional status would have more lasting impact when combined with efforts to improve women’s status.

India has a large programme that aims to provide supplementary nutrition for children called the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).

Studies have shown that preventing child malnutrition in the most critical phase of child development between six months and two years is more effective than targeting children under the age of five once they have become malnourished.

By the time a child has developed signs of malnutrition, the damage may already be irreversible

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