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[NEW DELHI] India's steady economic growth over the past 15 years has had little effect on reducing malnutrition in children, a new study has found.

The country is not on track to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality, said the study by researchers at the School of Public Health, University of Michigan, and Harvard University, published in PLoS Medicine last week (8 March).

Direct investments in health and health-related programmes are more likely to reduce childhood undernutrition than economic growth, the researchers said.

Malavika Subramanyam, S. V. Subramanian and colleagues, analysed data drawn from India's national family health surveys conducted in 1992–93 (28,066 children), 1998–99 (26,121 children) and 2005–06 (23,139 children) to arrive at their conclusions.

They used the weight-for-age, height-for-age and weight-for-height measurements of children below the age of three years in these surveys to classify nutritional status as underweight, stunting or wasting, according to WHO standards.

Half of the children studied were stunted and a quarter wasted. "We failed to find consistent evidence that economic growth leads to reduction in childhood undernutrition in India," the researchers said.

There were regional disparities. The decline in underweight prevalence between 1992 and 2005 was 0.46 in Bihar, 0.83 in Delhi, and 0.74 in Goa (measured in percentage points per year).

Bihar had the lowest per capita income (and rate of growth), while the state with the highest per capita income was Delhi in 1993 and Goa in 1999 and 2005.  

The statEs of Haryana and Meghalaya exhibited the highest rates of growth, yet experienced high levels of undernutrition.

The study noted that parental education increased the possibility of improving child nutrition. "We found that intervention in maternal education leads to decrease in child undernutrition," Subramanian told SciDev.Net

Ritu Priya, an associate professor at the Centre for Social Science and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, said it was obvious that economic growth cannot be relied upon to improve the nutritional status of children.

Increasing levels of disparity, she said, was one barrier to translating growth into improvement in the nutritional status of children.

"If the benefits of economic growth do not touch sections of the population with the highest levels of malnutrition, it cannot be expected to change the situation significantly," she said.