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‘Preference for sons’ could help unlock India’s nutrition puzzle

Heights decline with birth order more among girls: data

Could Indian families’ preference for sons explain its poor nutrition and surprisingly low heights? New research suggests this is the case — it is largely girls, especially those younger, who face the height disadvantage.

Seema Jayachandran, Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of Northwestern University, and Rohini Pande, Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, analysed data for over 1.7 lakh Indian and sub-Saharan African children, drawn from Demographic and Health Surveys, in a National Bureau for Economic Research working paper published this week.

They found that first-born Indian boys are taller than their sub-Saharan counterparts, but the height disadvantage begins to appear and grow sharper for their younger brothers.

Girls are at a disadvantage at all stages; first-born girls are shorter than their sub-Saharan counterparts, and girls with elder female siblings are worst off.

‘Son preference leads to unequal allocation’

A preference for sons in India, encompassing both a desire to have at least one son and for the eldest son to be healthy, generates a starkly unequal allocation of resources within families in India, suggests new research.

Seema Jayachandran, Associate Professor in the Department of Economics of Northwestern University, and Rohini Pande, Mohammed Kamal Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, analysed data for over 1.7 lakh Indian and sub-Saharan African children, drawn from Demographic and Health Surveys, in a National Bureau for Economic Research working paper published this week.

The explanations for India’s height disadvantage with respect to Africa vary. While Columbia University economist Arvind Panagariya, now Vice-Chairperson of the NITI Aayog, attributes it to genetics and bad measurement, others like Dean Spears of the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics say that poor sanitation resulting in loss of nutrients accounts for the difference.

While India’s economic growth rate and development gains are far greater than those of sub-Saharan Africa, children born in India are on an average shorter than those born there. India has been slow in reducing child stunting.

This becomes a concern because economic and health literature shows that child heights reflect net nutritional intake and are a strong predictor of cognition and other development outcomes in adulthood.

Only among Hindus

Within India, the researchers find that heights decline with birth order only among Hindus and not Muslims. Kerala does not have any such fall in height with the birth order either.

With the spread of illegal pre-natal sex determination and the general move towards smaller families, this is likely to get worse. “[I]t is likely that the discrimination against girls will become more extreme [and take the form of missing girls rather than short girls]. It’s clear that we need to directly tackle the root cause — son preference,” Ms. Pande said in an e-mail to The Hindu.

The new study is likely to add to the heated debate over child heights in India. “I think the challenge is that it is tough any time anyone tries to seek to identify single explanations for the story of high under-nutrition in India,” said Purnima Menon, senior nutrition specialist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“There are massive inter-State differences in fertility rate and the higher birth order children are likely those who live in the poorest districts of the poorest States and are subject to living conditions that are simply not conducive to better linear growth,” Ms. Menon suggested.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 12:09:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/preference-for-sons-could-help-unlock-indias-nutrition-puzzle/article7082280.ece

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