Early data from the first phase of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) (2015-2019) tells a grim story. The proportion of stunted children has risen in several of the 17 states and five Union territories surveyed, putting India at risk of reversing precious gains in child nutrition made over previous decades. Worryingly, that includes richer states like Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa and Himachal Pradesh. The share of underweight and wasted children has also gone up in the majority of the states. Between 2005-6 (NFHS-3) and 2015-16 (NFHS-4), India had remarkable success in reducing stunting from 48 per cent to 38.4 per cent. Not only is it exceptionally rare to see a major economy and democracy undoing such gains, but these figures come after massive government programmes that sought to address issues crucial to health and nutrition, from the big push to end open defecation by the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to access to clean cooking fuel and drinking water.
Though more granular data is needed to parse the reasons for this unexpected setback, there have been several indicators of the slowing down of economic growth and employment distress, which are bound to have an effect on hunger and nutrition. The 2017-18 NSSO report, for instance, showed a dip in consumption expenditure for the first time in decades, but the government eventually decided to withhold it. But the problem of child malnourishment is a hard one precisely because it is tangled in several deep-rooted problems, and is not just a function of growth. The gender skew in Indian societies, which leads to poor education, lack of reproductive choice and inadequate nutrition from childhood, perpetuates a vicious legacy of under-nutrition. In recent years, the culture wars over non-vegetarian food habits have also led several states to knock off eggs — one of the cheapest sources of protein for children — off mid-day meal and anganwadi menus.
That these are pre-pandemic figures gives more reason for disquiet. The COVID-19 outbreak — and the lockdown to contain its spread which left millions stranded and hungry — has sent incomes into a tailspin, with the economy yet to recover from the shock. The pandemic has also sharpened the edge of all inequalities, and ripped apart fragile welfare nets. So, the real-time deprivations of hunger are bound to be far more acute, with serious implications for generations to come — as well as for national aspirations of prosperity. The government must undertake urgent assessments of nutrition status during the pandemic and go back to the drawing board to plug the holes.