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Let’s talk about malnutrition

Copyright: rasika108 / 123RF Stock Photo
A malnourished boy sits on the streets of Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh.

Elections begin this week, and it is worth appraising India’s diversity: not only evident in its cultural landscape but also in the distribution of wealth and wellness.

Even as 22 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, India is home to 84 of the world’s billionaires according to Forbes 2016. India is the third most obese country in the world, whereas it ranks 103rd out of 119 qualifying countries in Global Health Index, indicating a level that is serious.

This non-inclusive growth must be a matter of concern ahead of the election as it is important to understand the reason behind this stark dichotomy. For the first time, a study, published in Economic and Political Weekly, established a technique to measure malnutrition on the basis of constituencies.

The analysis shows that 72 of the 543 parliamentary constituencies have twenty percent prevalence of child malnutrition indicators including stunting, low weight for age, wasting and anaemia. Twelve of these constituencies are in Madhya Pradesh, nineteen in Madhya Pradesh, ten in Karnataka, eight in Uttar Pradesh and six in Rajasthan.

Source: State of nutrition among children

Yet a country with 46.6 million stunted children, constituting one third of the world’s burden and costing the country $46 billion by 2030, malnutrition and hunger have failed to be a part of the electoral discourse.

Across parliamentary constituencies nationwide, the proportion of stunted children under five ranged from fifteen to 63.6 percent; of underweight children from 11.1 to 60.9 percent; of wasted children from 5.9 to 39.6 percent; and of anaemic children from 17.8 to 83.6 percent.

In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, malnutrition indicators are worse than the constituencies of eight cabinet colleagues. For children under five, Varanasi has a stunting prevalence of 43 percent – higher than the national average of 35.9 percent.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh and his Congress party colleague Jyotiraditya Scindia’s Guna in Madhya Pradesh ranked second and third from the bottom by stunting, after Gulbarga, among those we compared.

Congress party’s Shashi Tharoor’s constituency Thiruvananthapuram with 18.5 percent percent and All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Asaduddin Owaisi’s constituency of Hyderabad with 20.6 percent are the best performers by stunting among eighteen high-profile constituencies we compared.

Source: State of nutrition among children

Prevalence of low-weight-for-age follows the same trend as stunting. Parliamentary constituencies with the highest proportion of underweight children are Singhbhum in Jharkhand (60.9 percent) of the BJP’s Laxman Giluwa, Purulia in West Bengal (54.1 percent) of the All India Trinamool Congress’ Mriganka Mahato, and Budaun in Uttar Pradesh (52.7 percent) of the Samajwadi Party’s Dharmendra Yadav.

Congress MP Rajeev Gowda had told Health Issues India, “Health is a question of competing priorities” and that is why it has always been overshadowed by narratives that get instant applause. But it is important for our policymakers to realise that until we take health as seriously as other nations do, India will neither fulfil its national nor global potential.

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