One of the most significant critiques of the Indian economic growth model is that it has failed to encourage social development in its wake. It is well known that the country has higher rates of malnourished children than in sub-Saharan Africa. Malnutrition remains an enormously pervasive across the States.
However, data put out by the Integrated Childhood Development Services (ICDS) that were compiled by the State governments reveals that there has been a significant improvement in the normal category of child nutrition. The proportion has gone up from 48 per cent in 2009-10 to 65 per cent in 2012-13, an increase of 16.6 percentage points over the four-year period.
“Several interventions have been made by the government, including the restructured ICDS that been rolled out in 200 districts,” said Sayeeda Hameed, member, Planning Commission, in-charge of malnutrition.
Ms. Hameed noted that these findings were preliminary and well be subject to more refinements. However, she maintained that this was certainly an encouraging step forward.
Except the government’s main effort to tackle child malnutrition, the ICDS has faltered for rather different reasons.
An evaluation report on the ICDS, prepared by Program Evaluation Organisation of the Planning Commission (2011), observed a wide divergence between official statistics on nutritional status, registered beneficiaries and grass roots reality regarding core indicators. The study also revealed that ‘official statistics on nutritional status of children generated departmentally do not represent grass-roots reality.’
Additionally, the inter-State comparison of child malnutrition throws up some perplexing findings. Only 18 per cent of Bihar’s children fall in the ‘normal’ category, against the all-India average of 65 per cent. Surprisingly, only 53 per cent of Delhi’s children fall in the ‘normal’ category — a score that is third from the bottom.
While Bihar’s growth story has received much attention, less known is the fact Bihar reports the highest proportion (26 per cent) of “severely undernourished” children, the highest proportion ( 56 per cent) of “mild to moderately” undernourished children and the lowest proportion (18 per cent) of children who fall in the “normal” category.
“Bihar is making a lot of effort in the social sector. Even after heroic efforts, it is lagging behind. The State has a lot of catching up to do. Even States like Gujarat are better off,” Ms. Hameed said.
Interestingly, Andhra Pradesh, despite having a much higher per capita income, reports a higher proportion of “mild to moderately” undernourished children at 38 per cent than Jharkhand (35 per cent) and Rajasthan (34 per cent).
Paradoxically, many high income States also report relatively high proportions of severely undernourished children. For example, the proportion of severely malnourished children in Haryana (5.2 per cent) is much higher than in Odisha (3.7 per cent).
Additionally, 47 per cent of Delhi’s children are “mild to moderately” undernourished despite being one of the richest States in terms of per capita income.
These findings confirm that high income alone is not a sufficient measure for ensuring that children are well nourished. Much greater attention needs to be paid to a host of other factors, including public provision of primary healthcare, water and sanitation and food security.
Moreover, high growth rates do not necessarily translate automatically into improvements of the nutritional status of children.