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.[1]  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.[2]  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.[3]

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.[4]   It is estimated that malnutrition is a contributing factor in about one-third of all deaths of children under the age of 5.[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)

NFHS Survey

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.[6],[7]  A high increase in the incidence of wasting was noted in Punjab, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Sikkim.[8]

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%.[9]

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

  • The Strategy aims to reduce all forms of malnutrition by 2030, with a focus on the most vulnerable and critical age groups. The Strategy also aims to assist in achieving the targets identified as part of the Sustainable Development Goals related to nutrition and health.
  • The Strategy aims to launch a National Nutrition Mission, similar to the National Health Mission. This is to enable integration of nutrition-related interventions cutting across sectors like women and child development, health, food and public distribution, sanitation, drinking water, and rural development.
  • A decentralised approach will be promoted with greater flexibility and decision making at the state, district and local levels. Further, the Strategy aims to strengthen the ownership of Panchayati Raj institutions and urban local bodies over nutrition initiatives.  This is to enable decentralised planning and local innovation along with accountability for nutrition outcomes.
  • The Strategy proposes to launch interventions with a focus on improving healthcare and nutrition among children. These interventions will include: (i) promotion of breastfeeding for the first six months after birth, (ii) universal access to infant and young child care (including ICDS and crèches), (iii) enhanced care, referrals and management of severely undernourished and sick children, (iv) bi-annual vitamin A supplements for children in the age group of 9 months to 5 years, and (v) micro-nutrient supplements and bi-annual de-worming for children.
  • Measures to improve maternal care and nutrition include: (i) supplementary nutritional support during pregnancy and lactation, (ii) health and nutrition counselling, (iii) adequate consumption of iodised salt and screening of severe anaemia, and (iv) institutional childbirth, lactation management and improved post-natal care.
  • Governance reforms envisaged in the Strategy include: (i) convergence of state and district implementation plans for ICDS, NHM and Swachh Bharat, (ii) focus on the most vulnerable communities in districts with the highest levels of child malnutrition, and (iii) service delivery models based on evidence of impact.

[1] National Health Policy, 2017, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, March 16, 2017,

[2] Nutrition in India, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 2005-06,

[3] Unstarred Question No. 2759, Lok Sabha, Answered on March 17, 2017,

[4] Helping India Combat Persistently High Rates of Malnutrition, The World Bank, May 13, 2013,

[5] Unstarred Question No. 4902, Lok Sabha, Answered on December 16, 2016,

[6] National Family Health Survey – 3, 2005-6, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare

[7] National Family Health Survey – 4 , 2015-16, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare,

[8] National Nutrition Strategy, 2017, NITI Aayog, September 2017,

[9] Rapid Survey On Children, Ministry of Women and Child Development, 2013-14,

In April 2020, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that nearly 2.5 crore jobs could be lost worldwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  Further, it observed that more than 40 crore informal workers in India may get pushed into deeper poverty due to the pandemic.  In this blog post, we discuss the effect of COVID-19 on unemployment in urban areas as per the quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) report released last week, and highlight some of the measures taken by the central government with regard to unemployment.

Methodology for estimating unemployment in PLFS reports

The National Statistics Office (NSO) released its latest quarterly PLFS report for the October-December 2020 quarter.  The PLFS reports give estimates of labour force indicators including Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR), Unemployment Rate, and distribution of workers across industries.  The reports are released on a quarterly as well as annual basis.  The quarterly reports cover only urban areas whereas the annual report covers both urban and rural areas.  The latest annual report is available for the July 2019-June 2020 period.

The quarterly PLFS reports provide estimates based on the Current Weekly Activity Status (CWS).  The CWS of a person is the activity status obtained during a reference period of seven days preceding the date of the survey.  As per CWS status, a person is considered as unemployed in a week if he did not work even for at least one hour on any day during the reference week but sought or was available for work.  In contrast, the headline numbers on employment-unemployment in the annual PLFS reports are reported based on the usual activity status.  Usual activity status relates to the activity status of a person during the reference period of the last 365 days preceding the date of the survey.

Unemployment rate remains notably higher than the pre-COVID period 

To contain the spread of COVID-19, a nationwide lockdown was imposed from late March till May 2020.   During the lockdown, severe restrictions were placed on the movement of individuals and economic activities were significantly halted barring the activities related to essential goods and services.  Unemployment rate in urban areas rose to 20.9% during the April-June quarter of 2020, more than double the unemployment rate in the same quarter the previous year (8.9%).  Unemployment rate refers to the percentage of unemployed persons in the labour force.  Labour force includes persons who are either employed or unemployed but seeking work.  The lockdown restrictions were gradually relaxed during the subsequent months.   Unemployment rate also saw a decrease as compared to the levels seen in the April-June quarter of 2020.  During the October-December quarter of 2020 (latest data available), unemployment rate had reduced to 10.3%.  However, it was notably higher than the unemployment rate in the same quarter last year (7.9%).

Figure 1: Unemployment rate in urban areas across all age groups as per current weekly activity status (Figures in %)


Note: PLFS includes data for transgenders among males.
Sources: Quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey Reports, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation; PRS.

Recovery post-national lockdown uneven in case of females

Pre-COVID-19 trends suggest that the female unemployment rate has generally been higher than the male unemployment rate in the country (7.3% vs 9.8% during the October-December quarter of 2019, respectively).  Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this gap seems to have widened.   During the October-December quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for females was 13.1%, as compared to 9.5% for males.

The Standing Committee on Labour (April 2021) also noted that the pandemic led to large-scale unemployment for female workers, in both organised and unorganised sectors.  It recommended: (i) increasing government procurement from women-led enterprises, (ii) training women in new technologies, (iii) providing women with access to capital, and (iv) investing in childcare and linked infrastructure.

Labour force participation

Persons dropping in and out of the labour force may also influence the unemployment rate.  At a given point of time, there may be persons who are below the legal working age or may drop out of the labour force due to various socio-economic reasons, for instance, to pursue education.  At the same time, there may also be discouraged workers who, while willing and able to be employed, have ceased to seek work.  Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) is the indicator that denotes the percentage of the population which is part of the labour force.  The LFPR saw only marginal changes throughout 2019 and 2020.  During the April-June quarter (where COVID-19 restrictions were the most stringent), the LFPR was 35.9%, which was lower than same in the corresponding quarter in 2019 (36.2%).  Note that female LFPR in India is significantly lower than male LFPR (16.6% and 56.7%, respectively, in the October-December quarter of 2019).

Figure 2: LFPR in urban areas across all groups as per current weekly activity status (Figures in %)


Note: PLFS includes data for transgenders among males.
Sources: Quarterly Periodic Labour Force Survey Reports, Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation; PRS.

Measures taken by the government for workers

The Standing Committee on Labour in its report released in August 2021 noted that 90% of workers in India are from the informal sector.  These workers include: (i) migrant workers, (ii) contract labourers, (iii) construction workers, and (iv) street vendors.  The Committee observed that these workers were worst impacted by the pandemic due to seasonality of employment and lack of employer-employee relationship in unorganised sectors.  The Committee recommended central and state governments to: (i) encourage entrepreneurial opportunities, (ii) attract investment in traditional manufacturing sectors and developing industrial clusters, (iii) strengthen social security measures, (iv) maintain a database of workers in the informal sector, and (v) promote vocational training.  It took note of the various steps taken by the central government to support workers and address the challenges and threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic (applicable to urban areas): 

  • Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), the central government contributed both 12% employer’s share and 12% employee’s share under Employees Provident Fund (EPF).  Between March and August 2020, a total of Rs 2,567 crore was credited in EPF accounts of 38.85 lakhs eligible employees through 2.63 lakh establishments.
  • The Aatmanirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojna (ABRY) Scheme was launched with effect from October 2020 to incentivise employers for the creation of new employment along with social security benefits and restoration of loss of employment during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Further, statutory provident fund contribution of both employers and employees was reduced to 10% each from the existing 12% for all establishments covered by EPF Organisation for three months.  As of June 30, 2021, an amount of Rs 950 crore has been disbursed under ABRY to around 22 lakh beneficiaries.
  • The unemployment benefit under the Atal Beemit Vyakti Kalyan Yojana (launched in July 2018) was enhanced from 25% to 50% of the average earning for insured workers who have lost employment due to COVID-19.
  • Under the Prime Minister’s Street Vendor’s Aatma Nirbhar Nidhi (PM SVANidhi) scheme, the central government provided an initial working capital of up to Rs 10,000 to street vendors.  As of June 28, 2021, 25 lakh loan applications have been sanctioned and Rs 2,130 crore disbursed to 21.57 lakh beneficiaries.

The central and state governments have also taken various other measures, such as increasing spending on infrastructure creation and enabling access to cheaper lending for businesses, to sustain economic activity and boost employment generation.