In the recent past, there has been a renewed discussion around nutrition in India. A few months ago, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had released the National Health Policy, 2017. It highlighted the negative impact of malnutrition on the population’s productivity, and its contribution to mortality rates in the country. In light of the long term effects of malnutrition, across generations, the NITI Aayog released the National Nutrition Strategy this week. This post presents the current status of malnutrition in India and measures proposed by this Strategy.
What is malnutrition?
Malnutrition indicates that children are either too short for their age or too thin. Children whose height is below the average for their age are considered to be stunted. Similarly, children whose weight is below the average for their age are considered thin for their height or wasted. Together, the stunted and wasted children are considered to be underweight – indicating a lack of proper nutritional intake and inadequate care post childbirth.
What is the extent of malnutrition in India?
India’s performance on key malnutrition indicators is poor according to national and international studies. According to UNICEF, India was at the 10th spot among countries with the highest number of underweight children, and at the 17th spot for the highest number of stunted children in the world.
Malnutrition affects chances of survival for children, increases their susceptibility to illness, reduces their ability to learn, and makes them less productive in later life. It is estimated that malnutrition is a contributing factor in about one-third of all deaths of children under the age of 5. Figure 1 looks at the key statistics on malnutrition for children in India.
Figure 1: Malnutrition in children under 5 years (2005-06 and 2015-16)
Sources: National Family Health Survey 3 & 4; PRS.
Over the decade between 2005 and 2015, there has been an overall reduction in the proportion of underweight children in India, mainly on account of an improvement in stunting. While the percentage of stunted children under 5 reduced from 48% in 2005-06 to 38.4% in 2015-16, there has been a rise in the percentage of children who are wasted from 19.8% to 21% during this period., A high increase in the incidence of wasting was noted in Punjab, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Sikkim.
The prevalence of underweight children was found to be higher in rural areas (38%) than urban areas (29%). According to WHO, infants weighing less than 2.5 Kg are 20 times more likely to die than heavier babies.2 In India, the national average weight at birth is less than 2.5 Kg for 19% of the children. The incidence of low birth-weight babies varied across different states, with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh witnessing the highest number of underweight childbirths at 23%.
Further, more than half of India’s children are anaemic (58%), indicating an inadequate amount of haemoglobin in the blood. This is caused by a nutritional deficiency of iron and other essential minerals, and vitamins in the body.2
Is malnutrition witnessed only among children?
No. Among adults, 23% of women and 20% of men are considered undernourished in India. On the other hand, 21% of women and 19% of men are overweight or obese. The simultaneous occurrence of over nutrition and under-nutrition indicates that adults in India are suffering from a dual burden of malnutrition (abnormal thinness and obesity). This implies that about 56% of women and 61% of men are at normal weight for their height.
What does the National Nutrition Strategy propose?
Various government initiatives have been launched over the years which seek to improve the nutrition status in the country. These include the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the National Health Mission, the Janani Suraksha Yojana, the Matritva Sahyog Yojana, the Mid-Day Meal Scheme, and the National Food Security Mission, among others. However, concerns regarding malnutrition have persisted despite improvements over the years. It is in this context that the National Nutrition Strategy has been released. Key features of the Strategy include:8
 Nutrition in India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2005-06, http://rchiips.org/nfhs/nutrition_report_for_website_18sep09.pdf
 Unstarred Question No. 2759, Lok Sabha, Answered on March 17, 2017, http://18.104.22.168/loksabhaquestions/annex/11/AU2759.pdf
 Helping India Combat Persistently High Rates of Malnutrition, The World Bank, May 13, 2013, http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/05/13/helping-india-combat-persistently-high-rates-of-malnutrition
 Unstarred Question No. 4902, Lok Sabha, Answered on December 16, 2016, http://22.214.171.124/loksabhaquestions/annex/10/AU4902.pdf
 National Nutrition Strategy, 2017, NITI Aayog, September 2017, http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/Nutrition_Strategy_Booklet.pdf
 Rapid Survey On Children, Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2013-14, http://wcd.nic.in/sites/default/files/RSOC%20National%20Report%202013-14%20Final.pdf