With the success in reducing child mortality, the challenge before India is to safeguard early-life conditions in order to prevent long-run loss in welfare for individuals and the economy. Malnutrition rates for India are extremely high, with about 38.4 per cent of children being stunted and 46 per cent underweight (National Family Health Survey, 2005-06). There is an emerging consensus that early childhood represents a critical period for the formation of cognitive and non-cognitive skills that affect long-term wellbeing. Several recent studies examine the long-term effects of general nutritional deprivation at critical periods, starting in-utero till the first two years of life. The findings indicate that long-run well-being is highly sensitive to the environmental conditions experienced early in life.
The new economics of the lifecycle recognises that childhood is a multistage process where early investments feed into later investments. The effects of poor growth until the age of two are irreversible for an important set of adult outcomes, including not only physical growth and disease resilience, but also education and economic productivity. Any shock during early childhood can prove costly, not just in the short run but also in terms of lifetime skill formation.
Increased climatic variability poses special challenges for child nutrition, especially for subsistence farmers depending on rain-fed agriculture. Given how dependent rural lives are on weather conditions, a rainfall shock is likely to affect household income due to a reduction in agricultural production, as well as food availability, which, in turn, affects the nutritional outcomes of children. Households often have to revert to suboptimal coping mechanisms, like taking children out of school or deferring healthcare expenditure.
Additionally, in the context of developing countries, child health shocks are likely to interact. For example, a child who is malnourished may be less able to fight off or recover from a disease. Similarly, a malnourished mother is more likely to bear a child who has lower ability to cope with health shocks. Moreover, the same shock can have differential impact depending on the initial level of health and access to social insurance. Importantly, the long-run consequences of such shocks depend on the availability and effectiveness of mitigation strategies before the household. For example, households with better assets and access to credit are better able to compensate. There is evidence that children from households that are the most socio-economically vulnerable are worst affected in their nutritional outcomes.
One way forward is to have an effective social protection mechanism that would enable households to maintain food security and protect the nutritional outcomes of children. As such, research findings provide additional justification for interventions such as weather insurance, social insurance schemes or policies ensuring food security, which shield infants from the health consequences of temporary environmental, civil and economic shocks. We need to recognise that programmes safeguarding early childhood vulnerability can play a critical role in any sustainable development agenda.
Interestingly, by analysing the cost-benefit ratios, we find the returns to investing early in the lifecycle are high — both for the individual as well as the society in which she lives — whereas the follow-up remediation of inadequate early investment is often difficult and costly. There is no equity-efficiency tradeoff for early childhood investment, and this has an important bearing on policy design. Therefore, monitoring the nutritional indicators of children becomes especially important. To design better action plans, we need objective data on nutrition and its drivers at the most disaggregated level. Nutritional biomarker data, which is critical to this debate, should be made open and at least available on request to researchers and policymakers.
In spite of the increased importance of early childhood investment, we seem to be going in the opposite direction, with reductions in the outlays for the midday meal scheme, etc. The government must keep in mind that investing in disadvantaged young children simultaneously promotes equity and productivity.
The writer is assistant professor of economics, Ashoka University