Global Hunger Index: More & more Indian children weigh too little for their height

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India ranks a low 100th out of 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) released Thursday. On the GHI severity scale, India is at the high end of the “serious” category, owing mainly to the fact that one in every five children under age 5 is “wasted” (low weight for height).

With 21% of under-5 children suffering from wasting, the report notes, India is one of the very few countries that have made no strides over the last 25 years in checking the prevalence of this indicator. Only three other countries in GHI 2017 – Djibouti, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan – have a child-wasting prevalence over 20%.

Child wasting is one of four indicators in the GHI. In India, it has increased in India from 17.1% in 1998-02 to 21% in 2012-16. This is way above the global prevalence: 9.5% of all under-5 children suffer from wasting.

The release of the under-5 wasting trends comes days after the publication of a study, in The Lancet, which has found a high count of underweight children in age group 5-19 in India. Based on body mass index, the study put the prevalence of underweight children and adolescents at 22.7% among girls, and 30.7% among boys.

The GHI captures the multidimensional nature of hunger based on four indicators -undernourishment (share of the population with insufficient calorific intake), under-5 child wasting, under-5 child stunting (low height for age), and under-5 child mortality. The data analysed for each country to arrive at the 2017 GHI score pertains to the period 2012-16. The 2017 GHI has been jointly published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Concern Worldwide, and Welthungerhilfe.

India’s overall GHI score has improved from 38.2 in 2000 to 31.4 in 2017, but it is among the worst performers in South Asia, slightly better than only two other countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, India ranked 97th out of 118 countries; in 2015, it ranked 80th out of 104.

“Given that three-quarters of South Asia’s population reside in India, the situation in that country strongly influences South Asia’s regional score. At 31.4, India’s 2017 GHI score is at the high end of the serious category,” the report says.

On the other three indicators, however, India has reported an improvement, especially on child stunting. The report notes that the child stunting rate, while relatively high at 38.4%, has gone down over the year, from 61.9% in 1992.

Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, said that child wasting reflects acute under-nutrition caused by prolonged period of poor diet, repeated illnesses, and poor sanitation. “The improvement on the child stunting rate shows that children are born in a better condition than before. The high wasting rate, however, shows neglect in the first two years in terms of infant feeding, sanitation, and overall environment,” Memon said.

The report, citing from Menon’s research, points out that while India claimed a “massive scale-up” of two national nutrition programmes, the Integrated Child Development Services and the National Health Mission, it has failed to achieve adequate coverage.

“Areas of concern include (1) the timely introduction of complementary foods for young children (that is, the transition away from exclusive breastfeeding), which declined from 52.7% to 42.7% between 2006 and 2016; (2) the share of children between 6 and 23 months old who receive an adequate diet – a mere 9.6% for the country; and (3) household access to improved sanitation facilities – a likely factor in child health and nutrition – which stood at 48.4% as of 2016,” it states.

The 2017 GHI scores show that the level of hunger in the world has decreased by 27% from the 2000 level. Of the 119 countries assessed in this year’s report, on the GHI Severity Scale, one is in the extremely alarming range, 7 are in the alarming range, 44 in the serious range, and 24 in the moderate range.

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