Shocking malnutrition rate should spur India to action

Former ONE intern Veronica Weis reports from India:

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Can you guess which country in the world has the highest rate of malnutrition and underfed children?

You might be inclined to pick a sub-Saharan nation, but the surprising answer is India. Over the past few years, despite robust economic growth, the world’s largest democracy has stubbornly maintained a malnutrition rate of over 40 percent. That’s nearly one in every two children!

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This figure is worse than most African countries and far higher than China, whose government has implemented targeted programs that have brought that percentage down to less than ten percent for children under five.

Tragically, as is the case with most developing countries, vast inequality means that the majority of these kids are born into poor families and disproportionately so, they are girls. Since Indian culture has traditionally prized boys over girls, many girls are fed only after the males in the family have eaten leaving them much more vulnerable to nutritional problems and anemia.

Child marriage, commonly practiced in the more rural, traditional districts, adds to poor maternal health and malnutrition. Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than women who are physically mature. Thirty percent of girls between the ages of 15 to 19 are married, and in some states like Uttar Pradesh, 40 percent of girls are married before they reach their 18th birthday. Undernourished themselves, these young mothers are ill-equipped physically to feed and nurture a baby.

To address the widespread problem, the Indian government has set up nutrition centers for families to collect rations of food. But because of corruption and inefficiency, even communities with the highest number of the centers have not seen improvement in malnutrition rates. People living in slums are often excluded from the programs because of social stigmas toward them. These families are usually the ones who need food rations the most. And calls for better management and distribution have been met with disapproval since budgets would have to be increased — an appalling response given all of the economic growth of the past decade and the severity of the problem. India can boast economic growth but this means little if it doesn’t translate to human development and better livelihoods.

Empowering women as directly related to the health of their children is not commonly discussed but is an important consideration in tackling this issue. Case studies from Rwanda to India have shown that securing land rights for women, either independently or with their husbands, drastically improves livelihoods like education, nutrition and healthcare.

Local governments in India are beginning to realize this and implement small-scale initiatives. But given the extent of the malnutrition crisis, a resources push from the national government is crucial to alleviate this sweeping matter.

Children who are born underweight and malnourished typically suffer from reduced health and mental capacity and these deficiencies can end up costing governments billions. If not for the sake of being accountable and responsible for their own people, the Indian government should seek to improve nutrition for the sake of its future.

Veronica Weis is a former ONE new media intern and is currently a President William J. Clinton fellow for the American India Foundation.