India’s stunted, wasted years

India’s stunted, wasted years

Representative image. Credit: iStockPhoto

The results of the first phase of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-V) should cause serious concern over the state of health of the country’s children. They show that cases of stunting (low height), wasting (underweight) and anaemia (emaciation), which are the most important indicators of children’s health, have increased during the period 2015-16 to 2018-19. The proportion of children suffering from stunting has increased in 11 states, severe wasting in 14 states and anaemia in 17, out of the 18 states for which data is now available. One out of five children is underweight. Anaemia cases have increased by 33% in Assam and 80% in Gujarat. The performance of even states like Kerala and Maharashtra has suffered during this period. The country had seen good improvement in these parameters from 2005-06 to 2015-16. Stunting had decreased from 48% to 38.4% during that period. These gains have now been erased.

It is not common for social sector gains made over the years to get suddenly reversed. But it should be noted that the years from 2015 have seen economic growth and other important indicators like jobs falling. But this period also saw some initiatives like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which should have had a bearing on children’s health. The National Food Security Act covered most parts of the country. An important nutrition-oriented programme, the National Nutrition Mission, was launched in early 2018. Schools had mid-day meal schemes. The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) continues. Despite all this, the health of India’s children has deteriorated. There are many other factors that influence it, like maternal health, education and awareness, women’s position in the family and society, the number of children in the family and other factors. The distinction between food and nutrition is also important. The need to serve a balanced and nutritious diet is not always kept in mind even when food is delivered under government schemes. The decision to drop eggs from mid-day meals is an example.

The concern over the deterioration of children’s health becomes even more serious when it is noted that the survey is yet to cover states like Uttar Pradesh and that it shows how bad the situation was before the pandemic. The situation has clearly worsened since then. Inequalities have widened and the weakest sections of society like women and children have been hit the most. All social welfare schemes of governments and private initiatives have flagged and the impact on children and their health can be imagined. Malnutrition debilitates children for their entire life. It is the nation’s responsibility to reverse the negative trend.