Published: October 20, 2014S.
Ignoring hunger and malnutrition will have significant costs to any country’s development. Nutrition improvement has both intrinsic and instrumental value
One of the disappointments in the post-reform period in India has been the slow progress in the reduction of malnutrition, especially with reference to the underweight among children. In fact, the rate of change in the percentage of underweight children has been negligible in the period 1998-99 to 2005-06; the only two points of data in recent years on undernutrition from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-II and -III. In this phase, the proportion of underweight children in the age group 0-3 years declined only marginally from 47 per cent to 46 per cent.
The reduction in malnutrition among children has been very slow when compared to rapid economic growth in the post-reform period. International studies show that the rate of decline in child undernutrition tends to be around half the rate of growth of per capita GDP. As Angus Deaton and Jean Drèze have said in an article on nutrition, in India’s case, per capita GDP of about 4.2 per cent during 1990 and 2005 was expected to reduce malnutrition by about 2.1 per cent per annum or 27 per cent during this period. Compared to this, the decline in malnutrition among children was only 10 per cent.
Economic growth and nutrition
However, the 2014 Global Hunger Index report of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) shows considerable improvement in India’s hunger index and in the percentage of underweight children — from 24.2 in 2005 to 17.8 in 2014 — an increase of 6.4 points. Also, out of 76 countries, India’s rank improved by around 8 points, from 63 to 55. While India is no longer in the category of “alarming” cases, its hunger status is still classified in the category of “serious”. This improvement is attributable mainly to a reduction in the percentage of underweight children, from 43.5 per cent in 2005-06 (NFHS-III) to 30.7 per cent in 2013-14 (a survey conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development with support from UNICEF). This shows a remarkable reduction of 13 percentage points in eight years during 2005-06 to 2013-14. However, the latest survey is a source of encouragement regarding the reduction in undernutrition. One has to wait for a year more for the findings of NFHS-IV.