By the year 2022, one in three Indian children under the age of five years will be stunted. This is a manifestation of chronic malnutrition. Stunting is caused by long-term insufficient nutrient-intake and frequent infections. UNICEF says stunting is associated with an underdeveloped brain, with long-lasting harmful consequences, including diminshed mental ability and learning capacity, poor school performance in childhood, reduced earnings and increased risks of nutrition-related chronic diseases with the likes of diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
Despite India having an impressive economic growth rate, it continues to have the highest number of stunted children in the world. The Hindu noted that the Indian farmer is producing more foodgrains than ever before but the consumer’s access to rice, wheat and other cereals has not increased due to population growth, inequality, food wastage and losses and exports. “The average per capita consumption of energy among the poorest 30 per cent of the population is 1811 kilo calories, much lower than the norm of 2155 kilo calories per day.”
Interestingly, in 2015, the National Bureau of Economic Research compared compared 174,000 children from India and 25 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study found that children born in India are, on average shorter than those born in Sub-Saharan Africa, ‘unless they are first-born sons’. Researchers said a son born at birth order 2 is taller in India than Africa if and only if he is the family’s eldest son. Indian girls, though on average, were shorter than their African counterparts regardless of birth order. The study established that this was ‘not just’ a result of malnutrition or genetics.
“We propose that a preference for eldest sons in India, encompassing both a desire to have at least one son and for the eldest son to be healthy, generates a starkly unequal allocation of resources within families in India,” the study said. Going further into cultural and religious settings, comparing Indian Hindus with Muslims, the study found that diminishing height of later born children was ‘only observed among Hindus’, with an exception being Kerala, a southern Indian state with a strong matrilinieal tradition. The study noted that Islam places less emphasis on the importance of having a son. “Eldest son preference can be traced to at least two aspects of Hindu religio-cultural practices.” The study also brought cultural factors such as greater communal care-giving in Africa and a historic preferemce for more family labor in Africa, to the fore.