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More than one third of the world’s malnourished children live in India

AsiaMore than one third of the world's malnourished children live in India

In 2013, reports assert that more than one-third of the world’s malnourished children live in India, half under 3 years old are underweight.

One of the main causes of why one-third of the malnourished children live in India is poverty and unequal economic status.  Due to the low social status of the majority of the population, the penurious staving population’s diet is depleted of quality and quantity.  Millions of children go to bed crying hungry bitterly, while others are so emaciated and fragile that they are existing on the edges of mortality.  Alarmingly, while the rich get wealthier amid a rising GDP, prices get higher for everyone, and in the heat of the pain of poverty, there are millions out in the yonder, starving, eating poor quality or limited food quantities, and barely struggling along each day.

According to one report, 14 percent of India’s population is undernourished. It also showed the country recorded a 37.4 percent stunting rate among children under five and a wasting rate of 17.3 percent.

In India, 44% of children under the age of 5 are underweight. 72% of infants and 52% of married women have anemia. Research has conclusively shown that malnutrition during pregnancy causes the child to have an increased risk of future diseases, physical retardation, and reduced cognitive abilities.

The 2017 Global Hunger Index (GHI) Report by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ranked India 100th out of 118 countries with a serious hunger situation. Amongst South Asian nations, it ranks third behind only Afghanistan and Pakistan with a GHI score of 29.0 (“serious situation”).  The 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report listed India as 102nd out of 117 countries with a serious issue of child wasting. At least one in five children under the age of five years in India is wasted.

An estimated 23.6% of the population of India lives below a purchasing power of $1.25 a day. According to the Registrar General of India, the death of children under the age of five was about 59 out of every 1000 live births which are alarmingly one of the highest rates in the world and reported by Save the Children to be primarily due to malnutrition in the children.

Shockingly, on the Global Hunger Index, India ranks as 67th among the 80 nations having the worst hunger situation which is worse than nations such as North Korea or Sudan. Stunningly, 25% of all hungry people worldwide live in India. While the situation improved in 1990, the proportion of hungry in the population has spiraled up high in recent times.

Among the States in India hit by malnutrition, one report per PTI on June 6, 2021, revealed that the highest malnutrition was found in Uttar Pradesh followed by Bihar.  In a study in September 2019,  Assam, Bihar, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh were noted to be the most malnourished states in India.  The common denominator in these states is the high population.  India is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country after China, with a population of 1.39 billion or 139 crores, the most populous democracy in the world.

Most of the population is still living below the National Poverty Line, despite economic growth, and the combination of people living in poverty and the recent economic growth of India has led to the co-emergence of two types of malnutrition: undernutrition and overnutrition.

Poor nutrition within the first thousand days of a child’s life can severely affect their health, leading to poor bone development, stunted growth, impaired cognitive ability, reduced school performance, and becoming prone to all kinds of diseases. Also, 68% of deaths in children under 5 years of age, in India, are due to malnutrition.

Reasons for Malnutrition

Socio-economic status
Poor children are at risk for under-nutrition, while those who have high socio-economic status are relatively more likely to be over-nourished. Anemia is negatively correlated with wealth.

The PDS system in India accounts for the distribution of wheat and rice only, by which the proteins are insufficient by these cereals which leads to malnutrition also.

Cultural Beliefs:

Many Indians are strictly vegan, which means, they do not consume any sort of animal product, including dairy and eggs. This leads to low protein because 56% of poor Indian households consume cereal to consume protein. It is observed that the type of protein that cereal contains does not parallel to the proteins that animal products contain and this too leads to anemia and other illnesses.

Undernutrition is more prevalent in rural areas, again mainly due to low socioeconomic status. Anemia for both men and women is only slightly higher in rural areas than in urban areas. For example, in 2005, 40% of women in rural areas, and 36% of women in urban areas were found to have mild anemia.  In urban areas, overweight status and obesity are over three times as high as in rural areas.

States like Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, and Bihar have very unusual high rates of under-nutrition. States with the lowest percentage of under-nutrition include Mizoram, Sikkim, Manipur, Punjab, Kerala, and Goa, although the rate is still considerably higher than that of developed nations. Further, anemia is found in over 70% of individuals in the states of Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, and Jharkhand. Less than 50% of individuals in Goa, Manipur, Mizoram, and Kerala have anemia.

Interestingly, Punjab, Kerala, and Delhi face the highest rate of overweight and obese individuals.

Domestic violence
A potent nexus has been found between malnutrition and domestic violence, singularly, high levels of anemia and undernutrition. Domestic violence comes in the form of psychological and physical abuse, as a control mechanism towards behaviors within families.  This violence affects a woman’s freedom to make decisions regarding buying and cooking food, taking care of the family because she loses her autonomy to choose the quality, type, and quantity of food for the house leading to unfavorable nutrition results for herself, and her family members.

Psychological stress also affects anemia through a process labeled oxidative stress. In moments of high stress, free radicals are produced which attack healthy red blood cells, therefore lowering hemoglobin blood levels and producing anemic malnutrition.  Additionally, physiological or chronic stress is strongly correlated with women being underweight.

Studies show that individuals belonging to Hindu or Muslim backgrounds in India tend to be more malnourished than those from Christian, Sikh, or Jain backgrounds.

Female population
Wealthy women in urban areas fall into the obese and overnourished category, while lower-income women in rural areas are underweight and undernourished. A consistent factor among dual burden outcomes relates primarily to food security issues. Access to healthy and nutritious foods within India has been increasingly replaced by a large supply of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. The existence of the dual malnutrition problems suggests a need for policymakers to support options that measure nutritional output, as opposed to calories when deciding policies to ensure a well-fed society.

Schemes Made Over Decades to Irradicate Malnourishment:

For decades, the Government of India launched several programs that work towards eradicating malnutrition. They include ICDS, NCF, National Health Mission among thousands of schemes and outreaches along with the tireless nourishing hands of NGOs all over India.

Midday meal scheme in Indian schools
The Indian Government started the midday meal scheme on 15 August 1995. It serves millions of children with freshly cooked meals in almost all the government-run schools or schools aided by the government fund.

The integrated child development scheme
The government of India started a program called Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in 1975. ICDS has been instrumental in improving the health of mothers and children under age 6 by providing health and nutrition education, health services, supplementary food, and pre-school education. ICDS is run by India’s central government via the Ministry of Women and Child Development, targeting rural, urban, and tribal populations, and has reached over 70 million young children and 16 million pregnant and lactating mothers.

Other programs impacting under-nutrition include the National Midday Meal Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission, and the Public Distribution System (PDS). The challenge for these programs and schemes is how to increase efficiency, impact, and coverage.

Recently, the new means of setting up community kitchens, adding proteins such as pulses and millets to the Public Distribution System, and continuing the school Midday Meal Scheme have been added post-COVID.

National Children’s Fund
The National Children’s Fund was created during the International Year of the Child in 1979 under the Charitable Endowment Fund Act, 1890. This Fund provides support to voluntary organizations that help the welfare of kids.

National Plan of Action for Children
India is a signatory to the 27 survival and development goals laid down by the World Summit on children in 1990. To achieve these goals, the Department of Women and Child Development has formulated a National Plan of Action on Children. Each concerned Central Ministries/Departments, State Governments/U.Ts. and Voluntary Organisations dealing with women and children have been asked to take up appropriate measures to implement the Action Plan. These goals have been integrated into National Development Plans. A Monitoring Committee under the Chairpersonship of Secretary (Women & Child Development) reviews the achievement of goals set in the National Plan of Action. All concerned Central Ministries/Departments are represented on the committee.

United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund
Department of Women and Child Development is the nodal department for UNICEF. India is associated with UNICEF since 1949 and is now in the fifth decade of cooperation for assisting most disadvantaged children and their mothers.

Traditionally, UNICEF has been supporting India in several sectors like child development, women’s development, urban basic services, support for community-based convergent services, health, education, nutrition, water & sanitation, specially-abled children, children in especially difficult circumstances, information and communication, planning and program support. India was a member of the UNICEF Executive Board till 31 December 1997.

Hundreds of NGOs feed the hungry:

There are hundreds of small NGOs that feed the hungry, too vast to count, and thousands of schools that provide the free mid-day meal.  Apart from that, the Nalabothu Foundation and The Akshaya Patra Foundation run the world’s largest NGO-run midday meal programs, each serving freshly cooked plant-based meals to over 1.3 million school children in government and government-aided schools in India.

These programs are conducted with part subsidies from the government and partly with donations from individuals and corporations. The meals served by Food for Life Annamrita and Akshaya Patra comply with the nutritional norms given by the government of India and aim to eradicate malnutrition among children in India. Food for Life Annamrita (FFLA) is the premier affiliate of Food for Life Global, the world’s largest free food relief network, with projects in over 60 countries.

Apart from this, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness’s (ISKCON) ISKCON Food Relief Foundation also serves heavily in providing nutrition.  Outreaches such as YWAM, (Youth With a Mission) serve food daily to the street children and there are hundreds of organizations such as these.


National Children’s Fund
The National Children’s Fund was created during the International Year of the Child in 1979 under the Charitable Endowment Fund Act, 1890. This Fund provides support to voluntary organizations that help the welfare of kids.

National Plan of Action for Children
India is a signatory to the 27 survival and development goals laid down by the World Summit on children in 1990. To implement these goals, the Department of Women & Child Development has formulated a National Plan of Action on Children.  A Monitoring Committee under the Chairpersonship of Secretary (Women & Child Development) reviews the achievement of goals set in the National Plan of Action. All concerned Central Ministries/Departments are represented on the committee.


In spite of all good efforts and a surging GDP, good economy by reports, with India featuring the top richest people in the world, the malnourished populations are increasing.  The schemes of India’s former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh lifted 270 million people out of poverty in 2005-2015; however, post-COVID, hunger has come back to haunt millions.  With the poor distribution of food, broken lines of networking, a crashed economy post demonetization coupled with COVID, joblessness, rising petrol prices which in turn swells up prices of commodities, vegetables, dairy, and groceries, living has become troublesome for the middle class, and even harder so for the poor.

In this situation, the Government of India has to chalk up powerful plans aiming at special outreach to the starving for at this particular time, it does not appear to be happening but the most alarming factor is the denial of the gravity of the situation, and perhaps for our staggering population, no one is trying hard enough.

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