Economic growth fails to remedy undernutrition in India’s children

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Growth in India’s economy since 1992 has not ended undernutrition among children in that country and may require the Indian government to directly invest in appropriate health interventions such as food aid, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. The study was published online March 8, 2011 in PLoS Medicine.

S V Subramanian, associate professor of society, human development, and health at HSPH and the study’s senior author, and Malavika Subramanyam, lead author, postdoctoral fellow at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, and an HSPH alum, analyzed economic and children’s growth patterns in the Indian states. The data came from the National Family Health Surveys on 77,326 Indian children surveyed in 1992-93, 1998-99 and 2005-06. The children’s nutritional status was classified as underweight or stunting and wasting, based on the World Health Organization Child Growth Standards. Children with a weight that is less than the median for their age and gender were classified as underweight. Similarly children whose height was below the median for their age and gender, and whose weight was below the median for their height and gender were considered stunted and wasted, respectively.

While the researchers found the prevalence of undernutrition decreased slightly during the study period, the decline did not correspond with the increase in economic growth.

It should be noted that economic growth in India is largely driven by the service and technology sector, which is largely composed of the privileged sections of Indian society, and not by the majority of the population, which is engaged in farming or manufacturing, Subramanian told the New York Times. It may, therefore, require India’s government to use its growing tax revenues for direct aid like food or food stamps in order to substantially reduce child undernutrition, he said.

Previous studies have shown that educating women and reducing birth rates are more helpful in keeping children nourished than macroeconomic growth, the authors said in the PLoS study.