Child stunting declines, but still high, data show

In this file photo, a volunteer feeds milk to a malnourished child in Mumbai. The new National Family Health Survey-4 data for 15 States show that 37 per cent of children under the age of five is stunted.  

Indian states have seen some improvements in child nutrition over the last decade, the first official data in over a decade shows, but over one in three children is still stunted, and over one in five underweight.

As of 2005-6, India had 62 million stunted children, accounting for a third of the world’s burden of stunting. India’s official source of nutrition data – key to measure stunting, wasting and other indicators of acute malnutrition – is the National Family Health Survey whose fourth round was conducted in 2014-15 after delays and disagreements that took ten years to resolve. As a result, India has had no official data on whether its high economic growth since 2005-6 improved nutritional outcomes.

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‘37% children under age 5 stunted’

The new NFHS-4 data for 15 states shows that 37 per cent of children under the age of five in these states is stunted, a fall of just five percentage points in a decade. Bihar and Madhya Pradesh are the worst off, with 48 and 42 per cent respectively of children stunted. The proportion of underweight children has reduced equally slowly, from 39 per cent to 34 per cent, with Bihar and Madhya Pradesh the worst off again.

The one success has been in the area of child wasting (low weight for height). The states for which data is available have more than halved their proportion of wasted children in the last decade, from 48 per cent to 22 per cent, the new data shows. The proportions of adult men and women with below normal Body Mass Index have also declined.

Health ministry officials cautioned that the data released so far covers only half the country and does not include high-performing states in the north-east, Kerala and Maharashtra. “It’s hard to paint a cross-state story because what’s important to look at is what’s happening on the ground in states,” Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Poverty, Health and Nutrition Division, agreed. In states which started at low levels, an accelerated trend is good news; “But yes, the levels are still very high. For states like Bihar with a multi-million birth cohort, these are troubling numbers,” Dr. Menon said.

India has also failed to make progress on reducing anaemia. The proportion of anaemic children aged 6 to 59 months fell just five percentage points to 61% in 2014, and over half of women aged 15-49 are still anaemic. Of all men aged 15-49, a quarter are suffering from anaemia, as was in 2004. Haryana has the highest proportion of anaemic children (72 per cent) and women (63 per cent) while in Bihar and Meghalaya, one in three men are anaemic, the highest in the country.

India has not made much headway in reducing anaemia in the last 30-40 years, Dr. Menon said, but anaemia was proving to be a global public health challenge, she added.

A smaller sample survey commissioned in 2012-13 and conducted with Unicef – the Rapid Survey on Children – was also released only in 2015. It showed a ten percentage point decline in the proportion of children under the age of five who were stunted (shorter than expected for their ages) and a 13 percentage point decline in the proportion of children who were underweight (lower weights than expected for their age).

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 11:38:10 AM |

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