So now we know why Gujarat has such appalling numbers when it comes to malnourished children. Asked by the Wall Street Journal what he was doing about the persistently high rates of malnutrition in his State, Chief Minister Narendra Modi lamented the fact that young girls just don’t listen to mummy. “If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they’ll have a fight. She’ll tell her mother, ‘I won’t drink milk. I’ll get fat’.” As Mr. Modi put it to the WSJ, Gujarat is “a middle class state. The middle class is more beauty conscious than health conscious.” If Mr. Modi’s startling revelation is true, it is another feather in the cap for Golden Gujarat. This must be the only place on the planet where girl children under the age of three, driven by blind, anorexic ambition, defy their unfortunate mothers. For that’s what the malnourished child numbers are about. According to the last National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the percentage of underweight children in the State actually went up between NFHS-2 (1998-99) and NFHS-3 (2005-06). And that was largely on Mr. Modi’s watch. He became Chief Minister in October 2001.
The NFHS-3 tells us that 47 per cent of children below the age of three in the State were underweight. That figure was 45 per cent in NFHS-2. That’s about twice the average for sub-Saharan Africa. It is also marginally higher than the nationwide average of 46 per cent. The percentage of Gujarat’s children who are ‘wasted’ also went up from 16 to 17 per cent between the two NFHS surveys. Mr. Modi also suggested malnourishment is a problem because “Gujarat is by and large a vegetarian State.” An interesting line of argument, but one based on the preposterous assumption that a vegetarian diet is incapable of keeping the human body well nourished. Truth to tell, the question that stumped Mr. Modi is one that even professional economists have struggled to answer. Throughout the world, anthropometric indicators of human well-being tend to move in tandem with growth rates. This is what makes Gujarat, which is a prosperous State in the macroeconomic sense, something of a puzzle. Some of its human development indicators are as bad as or worse than India’s poorest States. Any serious administrator would have already studied this problem and started taking remedial steps. What makes Mr. Modi’s hokey answer so distressing is that the problem of child malnutrition is clearly not even on his radar as Chief Minister. “We will try to get a drastic change in this,” he lamely promised. Maybe we’re seeing the birth of a new measure of insensitivity, if not malnourishment. The Modi Index?