Feed the mother, first

Feed the mother, first

The Indian economy is increasingly attracting such investors with projections of 8.7 per cent growth over the next decade. That could mean an additional Rs 11 trillion of GDP by 2020 and more than 37 million new jobs. 

But what do these numbers actually mean for Indian citizens? According to the results from the 2010 Human Development Index, it depends on where you live, your gender and your ability to access economic opportunity. If you are fortunate to be among the third of India’s population working in the services industry, which accounts for more than half of India’s output, then chances are you are benefitting from India’s tremendous growth.   

In this regard, India is a conundrum when it comes to its economic growth coinciding alongside some of the highest poverty rates in the world. If you compared eight of the poorest Indian states, accounting for more than a third of the population, poverty rates are comparable to 26 of the poorest countries in Africa.   

If India intends to continue to grow its economy at a steady, near double-digit rate over the coming decades, it will need to aggressively focus on addressing the burden of malnutrition during a critical window of opportunity where today more than 80 million children are facing the most critical development period of their lives – from the womb to age two.  

Science has now shown that this “window of opportunity” has a major effect on the future of a child, his/her community and his nation. If the mother is well nourished, the child has a better chance of surviving the first months of life. If he/she is breast-fed for the first six months, followed by the introduction of nutritious complementary foods containing essential vitamins and minerals through to age two, the child is more likely to complete education, have a higher IQ and earn up to 46 per cent more over his/her lifetime. In fact, a child’s height for age at two years is the single best predictor of human capital.  Today, however, almost half of all Indian children will not attain their optimal height.  And growth failure accrued by two years of age occurs during pregnancy. 

It is for this reason that the United Nations’ Sixth Report on the World Nutrition Situation calls for a renewed effort to invest in maternal nutrition as a means to break the inter-generational cycle of growth failure.  It is well-documented that growth failure is transmitted across generations through the mother. Small women are more likely to have low birth weight babies in part because maternal size has an influence on birth weight. In turn, children born with a low birth weight are more likely to have growth failure during childhood and become small adult women.  


In a recent Harvard study, researchers highlight a strong correlation between the attained height of a country’s mothers and the future economic trend for that country. In addition, the study demonstrates that a woman’s attained height is also a strong indicator of her socio-economic status, and can often predict the health, well-being and economic potential of her children.   In this regard, assuring quality maternal and early childhood nutrition can not only break the inter-generational cycle of growth failure, but can also have a dramatic impact on India’s economy by adding an additional 4 per cent to its GDP — which would equate to more than US $50 billion in 2011 alone.
The key to sustainably reducing malnutrition is to build dynamic partnership models that include families, communities, governments, industry and nongovernmental organisations.  In this regard, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is partnering with Naandi Foundation to improve the quality of the mid day meal provided to school children, with Britannia Industries and Cargill industries to fortify biscuit and vegetable oil respectively, with the governments of Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP and Bihar to improve the quality of services focused on women of child bearing age, pregnant and lactating women, and infants and children below 3 years.