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Parental guidance

The Right to Food campaign aims to alleviate child malnutrition. But to make it work, parents should make feeding children healthy food a priority, writes Abhijit Banerjee.

india Updated: May 04, 2010 23:22 IST

A couple of years ago a colleague came into my office with what he thought was a definite typographic error: “It says that India won only three medals in the Olympics; that cannot be right — there is a billion people in India.” I had to break it to him that this was actually the most medals India ever won in a single Olympic game. India has an average of 0.92 medals per Olympic, over 22 Olympic Games, putting it just below Trinidad and Tobago at 0.93. To put these numbers in perspective, China has won 386 medals in eight games, at an average of 48.3 and there’re 79 countries that average better than India. Yet, India has ten times as many people as all but six of those countries.

Of course, India is poor. But not as poor as it used to be, and not nearly as poor as Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, each of which, per head, has more than ten times our medal count. Indeed, no country that has less medals per Olympic than India is even a tenth of its size, with two notable exceptions — Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bangladesh, in particular, is the only country of over 100 million people that has never won an Olympic medal. The next largest such country is Nepal.

There’s clearly a pattern here. South Asia is what statisticians call an outlier, something that just doesn’t fit. It’d seem logical, especially, in these days of Indian Premier League scandals, to blame cricket — may be cricket is absorbing all the sporting talent we have. But the fact is that we aren’t that good at cricket. South Asians have never had the dominance over cricket that Australia, England and even tiny West Indies had in their heydays, despite our obsession and our massive size advantage — Bangladesh, for example, is bigger than England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies put together.

There are, of course, many other things that we have in common — Bollywood, bhangra, biryani — but the natural place to look first is nutrition. The usual measure of how well a child has been fed through her childhood years is her height compared to the international standard height for that age. Children of Indian origin in the West converge to the mean height of the native population over a couple of generations, which makes this a reasonable measure. By this measure, the numbers for India from the National Family Life Survey (NFHS 3) are nothing short of devastating.

Roughly half the children under five are stunted, which means that they’re so much below the norm that there is serious cause for concern about their current and future health. A quarter are severely stunted, representing extreme nutritional deprivation. Our children are also extraordinarily underweight given their height: about half the children fall below the international definition of malnourishment and a quarter are wasted, meaning they’re suffering from severe malnutrition. The record for the rest of South Asia, excepting to some extent, Sri Lanka, is no better.

What makes these facts more remarkable is that the stunting and wasting rates in sub-Saharan Africa, undoubtedly the poorest chunk of the world, are only about half of that in India. And these are the national average numbers: The NFHS divides the entire population in to five wealth categories, from the poorest to the richest. The numbers, given above, correspond more or less to what the survey finds for the middle wealth group of the five. For the poorest, stunting rates are over 70 per cent.

Nutrition seems to be another instance of South Asian exceptionalism. We do worse in the Olympics than countries far poorer than us, and our children are much less well-fed. I’d guess that these two facts are connected.

But underfed children are obviously not just about Olympic medals. They are the workforce of the future, the brawn but the brains as well — there is compelling evidence that childhood nutrition is connected to brain development. It’s clear that some drastic action is called for and the current conversation about the ‘Right to Food’ clearly has something to do with this. But it is also clear that the ‘right’, which at some abstracted moral sense I entirely endorse, mostly misses the point.
If the poor in sub-Saharan Africa can feed their children, the middle of the Indian wealth distribution, who are far richer, can do it too. In the end, nutrition isn’t primarily about money (though, obviously, for some people it is), but about bad water and poor sanitation and the diseases that come with it, which leach nutrients from the child’s body and most importantly, about the diets that parents choose for their children — diets that may not have enough calories and certainly don’t have enough proteins and micronutrients. Food, it seems, is not enough of a priority.

The Right to Food movement wants to solve this problem by offering people grains and, most importantly, pulses — probably one key missing piece of the diet — at heavily subsidised prices through the Public Distribution System (PDS). This may not be a bad idea if people actually eat the food. But given that they don’t think it’s a priority, why would they? In the old days of universal PDS, middle-class families would sell their subsidised grains to the poor. Now the poor will sell their subsidised dal to the middle-classes. And all that is if the food ever gets to them — as it is more than half of the stuff that gets into the hands of the PDS system gets ‘lost’ along the way — my guess is that entrusting it with large amounts of highly-subsidised dal won’t help.

Our children cannot get the food, which is so obviously their right, till their parents make properly feeding them a priority. I will confess that I do not know how to make that happen. But what is clear is that it cannot be legislated in Delhi.

Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics and Director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT

The views expressed by the author are personal