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[NEW DELHI] Child malnutrition in India is clustered in specific geographical areas, a fact that gives India’s policymakers an opportunity to efficiently address a serious development problem, says a new study published this month (March) in Spatial Demography.  
 
According to the UN Children’s Fund, over 38.4 per cent of Indian children are stunted and more than half are anaemic. In 2019, India was placed 102 among 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index.

“We find major regional clusters of districts with particularly severe conditions for children growing up. These clusters need to be tackled first and foremost if malnutrition has to disappear as a problem and a development obstacle in the future”

Erich Striessnig, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

The new study, led by Erich Striessnig, a research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria, found over one in five children having low weight for their height (wasting) and two in five children suffering from low height for their age (stunting), due to inadequate nutrition.
 
“This severe situation is driven to a large extent by high child malnutrition and underlines the need for a stronger commitment to poverty alleviating social policies,” the study notes.
 
Childhood malnutrition continues to be one of the biggest obstacles to development in India, Striessnig tells SciDev.Net. “We tried to identify regional clusters of malnutrition that can help tackle the problem at the district level,” he says. “What is clear is that interventions cannot be restricted to individual states but need to spread across state borders and requires cooperation between bordering states.”

Striessnig and his colleague Jayanta Bora, who is affiliated with the New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, relied on India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4, which is based on data from 2015—2016, and gets down to the district level for the first time.

According to Striessnig, the district-level data provides a chance to assess childhood malnutrition’s countrywide distribution “at much finer spatial scales than previously available”. The researchers looked at a sample of 259,627 children aged less than 5 years, across 640 districts in India.

“Throughout most of southern India, children are provided with relatively better conditions for growth and improved nutritional status as compared to districts in the central, particularly rural parts of India…Looking at average weight as well as the proportion of children that suffer from underweight and wasting, north-eastern Indian districts offer living conditions more conducive to healthy child development,” the study noted.  

According to the researchers, geographical clustering of malnutrition across India coincides with various factors, such as increased poverty, low education in women, low body-mass index status of mothers, poor sanitation and drinking water supply, high fertility, increased prevalence of teenage pregnancies and lack of immunisation.

“We find major regional clusters of districts with particularly severe conditions for children growing up. These clusters need to be tackled first and foremost if malnutrition has to disappear as a problem and a development obstacle in the future,” says Striessnig. Speaking to SciDev.Net, Agnimita Giri Sarkar, consultant paediatrician at the Institute of Child Health, Kolkata, comments that the study is valuable because it reflects the heterogeneous pattern of malnutrition across India.
 
“A geographical risk-based approach, instead of a generic approach, will definitely be more cost-effective and targeted,” she says. “The study seems to be an eye-opener for policy makers.”
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.