It was almost exactly 10 years ago that Goldman Sachs first came up with the term “BRICs.” Since then, Brazil, Russia, India and China have seen impressive growth figures and improved standards of living. But when it comes to feeding its children, India has fared the worst. In 2006, around 40% of Indian children under the age of five were undernourished, only a small improvement from six years earlier, when the rate was 43%, according to government data. South Asia as a whole has the highest proportion of underweight children in the world, worse even than sub-Saharan Africa, according to 2008 U.N. data.
Experts say there has been little improvement in recent years. Rates of childhood malnutrition have been improving “extremely slowly” in India, says Lawrence Haddad, director of the U.K.-based Institute of Development Studies. Considering the country’s rapid economic growth, malnutrition should be going down by two-to-three times the current rate, he adds. Young girls, who are often allowed to eat only after their brothers, are particularly vulnerable, Mr. Haddad notes. At this pace, Mr. Haddad says India is unlikely to meet its target of significantly reducing childhood malnutrition by 2015, one of its commitments under the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. While countries like China and Brazil are on track to meet this goal on time, Mr. Haddad doubts India will get there before 2043. There is a peculiarity about India: here, agricultural growth hasn’t resulted in improved childhood nourishment. This is something that baffles Mr. Haddad. “In India the two seem to be disconnected and we don’t know why.” A possible explanation is that not enough has been done policy-wise. “The government hasn’t given [malnutrition] a big enough priority,” said Mr. Haddad, who recently wrote a paper on why India needs a national nutrition strategy.
There have been some encouraging signs. The National Food Security Bill, a draft of which is pending for approval in the current session of Parliament, would subsidize grain prices for millions of India’s poor. And opening up the Indian market to international supermarkets and department stores could help modernize India’s supply-chain mechanism, preventing food from perishing during transport. But Mr. Haddad argues that focusing on food is not enough. To address malnutrition, he called for greater coordination in areas ranging from health and sanitation, to agriculture, to women’s status. “Food is part of the puzzle, part of the solution, but I would like to see the next Five Year Plan being devoted to getting rid of the scourge of malnutrition,” he said.