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Malnourishment declined sharply among children in India: survey

The proportion of underweight children in India might have declined from 45.1 per cent in 2005-06 to a historic low of 30.7 per cent last year, new provisional data from a survey conducted by the government and UNICEF shows.

Since 2005-06, there has been no new data on child and adult weights and heights, key in determining malnutrition, because of a delay in the National Family Health Survey, India’s official source of health data.

Now back on track, new NFHS data will only be out towards the end of next year. In the interim, UNICEF and the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development carried out a ‘Rapid Survey on Children’ in 2013-14, the key provisional data for which it made available. According to this survey, India’s proportion of children underweight fell from 45.1 per cent in 2005-06 to 30.1 per cent in 2013-14.

This makes the decline in one indicator of child undernourishment the sharpest in the 25 years that such data has been collected.

Confirming the numbers to The Hindu , a senior official in the Ministry of Women and Child Development said the results were being reviewed by a high-powered committee, after which they would be made public.

Ending what has been referred to as a “data drought,” these provisional numbers have significantly altered India’s position in global health indices. India’s ‘hunger’ status no longer ranks as “alarming” in the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) Global Hunger Index, but has instead been reclassified as “serious.”

India fares better

In the last decade, India has improved its health status faster than other South Asian countries, the new data indicates, as opposed to the widespread belief that countries such as Bangladesh had done a better job on reducing malnutrition than India despite India’s faster economic growth.

What caused this change? IFPRI credits the government’s push to extend nutrition schemes like the Integrated Child Development Services along with better monitoring by a Supreme Court-appointed committee, improve access to health under the National Rural Health Mission, provide access to work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and strengthen the implementation of the Public Delivery System for subsidised grain. “In the last 10 to 15 years, what happened in India was similar to what we have seen in Brazil and China – fast-growing economies with reasonably concurrent investments in social sector programmes, leading to what we would expect to see, which is an improvement in health outcomes,” Dr. Purnima Menon, senior research fellow at IFPRI, told The Hindu .

While countries like Nepal and Bangladesh conduct health surveys every three years, India has not had one for nearly ten years, Dr. Menon added.

Even so, India still has the highest number of underweight children under five in the world and 70% of children are anaemic. The proportion of undernourished people in the overall population has fallen from 21.5 per cent in 2004-06 to 17 per cent in 2011-13, according to IFPRI estimates. Moreover, State-wise differences are not yet known; it’s necessary to wait for the full results from India’s survey to get a sense of which States had seen faster and slower reductions, Dr. Menon said.

Globally, two billion people are suffering from “hidden hunger”, a lack of essential vitamins and minerals in their diet, IFPRI said while releasing the 2014 Global Hunger Index on Monday.

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