The Wasting Enigma of Indian states

Group of Cheerful Rural Indian Children playing in a village in Maharashtra

India is the home to half of the world’s wasted children. Since the last few years there has been a growing attention towards this abysmal state of child under-nutrition in India. Despite several initiatives taken to ameliorate the situation, some of the Indian states have currently observed a rise in the wasting rates among children under the age of five years. Wasting refers to low weight in relation to the height of the child. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) data of 2015- 16 which has been released recently shows a heretical state of affairs where some of the states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Karnataka have actually witnessed a sharp rise in the rates of wasting vis-à-vis that during the previous decade. Wasting is an anthropometric index often studied to reflect acute under-nutrition.

Along with two other indices- Stunting (height-for-age), and Underweight (weight-for-age), these indices are used to determine the extent of under-nutrition among children. Results for seventeen states are available from NFHS-4 reports, out of which only thirteen can be traced backwards in time for comparison. Out of these thirteen states, as many as seven states have actually witnessed a rise in the wasting rates. In Maharashtra, 16.5% under-five aged children were suffering from wasting in the previous decade, according to NFHS-3 reports. The same percentage now stands at 25.6%. In Karnataka, wasting rates have increased from 17.6% to 26.1% between 2005-06 and 2015-16. West Bengal has also witnessed a rise in wasting rates from 16.1% to 20.3% during this time. As expected, districts like Birbhum, Paschim Medinipur, and Purulia which fall under the Red Corridor Zone are amongst the worst performing districts in Bengal. Apart from these states, Goa, Haryana, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand have also seen increase in the rates of child wasting.

However, the proportion of children suffering from stunting and underweight has declined in all the states. Historically, between 1989 and 2014, stunting rates have declined from 62% to 38%, and proportion of under-five aged children who are underweight have dropped from 55% to 29%. During this same period, wasting rates although have hovered in the range of 15-20% (JME dataset, 2015). India is currently witnessing a paradoxical situation where there has been increase in growth rates of per capita income, along with abysmally low levels of nutritional outcomes in children.

In some states, these child anthropometric measures are as worse as in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This year’s Global Hunger Index (GHI), calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ranks India at 97th position among 118 developing nations. Interestingly, wasting is one of the key parameters used for calculating the GHI. It seems that to fight hunger, policies must redress the issue of increasing child wasting. As mentioned earlier, amidst this dismal state of affairs, wasting rates have actually increased in some of the states. This has led to a phenomenon which may be termed as the “Wasting Enigma”. Though there has been increase in breastfeeding practices, institutional delivery, vaccination rates, and that of general awareness, yet when it comes to actual outcome, why hasn’t wasting rates significantly declined? Why better performing states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, and West Bengal have performed regressively in rates of wasting in the last decade? These are the questions yet to be answered.

( This article is an abridged version of his M.Sc term paper on the same topic. The author would like to thank Prof. M.H.Suryanarayana for his valuable comments and guidance)

Profile photo of Debamanyu Das
Debamanyu Das is an M.Phil Research Scholar of Economics, in Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai.