India has the third-highest proportion of workers stunted in their childhood, according to a paper published by the World Bank. Children with stunted growth are more prone to enduring adverse outcomes later in life: They suffer from impaired brain development, which leads to lower cognitive and socio-emotional skills and lower levels of educational attainment. The lack of these skills have led to 66% of the workforce earning less than it would otherwise have, one of the highest such proportions worldwide. Of the 140 countries analysed by World Bank, only Afghanistan (67%) and Bangladesh (73%) surpassed India’s proportion of workers who were stunted as children. However, the current number of children, under five, who are stunted has reduced drastically. Over 26 years to 2014, the percentage of stunted Indian children under five has reduced from 62.7% to 38.7%.
Countries poorer than India have handled stunting better. For example, Senegal, with a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) half of that of India’s, was able to reduce stunting in its children by half over 19 years to 2012. Peru, too, demonstrated a remarkable decline in its childhood stunting characteristics, due, in large parts, to its nutrition, health and sanitation interventions. While the global average rate of return of the neonatal health and nutrition programme the authors of the study used was 17%, this same figure was 23% for India, and does not include the non-pecuniary benefits of improved childhood health and nutrition.
Therefore, the actual return would probably be much higher. According to a district-level, country-wide study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute in May, nearly three-fourths of the difference in child stunting between highly sensitive districts and less sensitive ones are explained by inadequacies in women’s well-being and efforts to reduce poverty. The two most influential deciding factors were that of women’s BMI and women’s education, explaining 19% and 12% of the difference, respectively. While the Integrated Child Development Services, PDS and mid-day meal schemes address children’s nutrition, and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the National Rural Water Drinking Programme address sanitation needs, improving women’s well-being remains a challenge for policy. The National Nutrition Mission (POSHAN Abhiyan) should perhaps be geared to address nutritional gaps for women in the lower income brackets if stunting is to be truly eradicated.