One of the biggest public health issues India is facing today is stunting of children and unless prompt intervention is made, it can affect 40 per cent of the future workforce, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has warned.
As many as 61.8 million children aged five or less — 39 per cent — are stunted, short for their age, according to the Rapid Survey on Children 2013.
“The reason I am pushing so hard on stunting is because we have spent a lot of time looking at possible paths of economic development in developing countries,” Mr Kim had said during his visit to Delhi last month.
“It is my suggestion to the government of India to work with us on stunting. This is the bottom line: if you walk into the future economy with 40 per cent of your workforce having been stunted as children, you are simply not going to be able to compete,” he said.
Mr Kim’s warning was timely: India will indeed find it difficult to compete with other countries in future if it cannot help its current generation of children grow as they should and develop into productive adults.
India’s figures are far higher than the global average of 24 per cent, according to the Global Nutrition Report 2015, threatening millions from the next generation with lower literacy, diminished cognitive skills, health risks and a greater likelihood of being poor.
In South Asia, only Nepal (41 per cent) and Pakistan (45 per cent) have a larger proportion of stunted children than India. Sri Lanka has the sub-continent’s lowest percentage of stunted children: 15.
Bangladesh and Bhutan have lower rates of stunting than India, which has been overtaken by its eastern neighbour. In 1997, when 46 per cent of India’s children were stunted, the corresponding rate in Bangladesh was 59.7 per cent.
India also has the highest stunting rate among BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations.
Stunting has long-term effects on individuals and societies, including diminished cognitive and physical development, reduced productive capacity and poor health and an increased risk of degenerative diseases like diabetes, according to the World Health Organisation.
If current global trends persist, 127 million children under five will be stunted in 2025. This is higher than the target of 100 million fixed under the Sustainable Development Goals, according to a WHO estimate. The main reason the target may not be met is the lack of funding, globally and locally.
Recent longitudinal studies (where the progress of children is tracked over many years) of children from Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines and South Africa associate stunting with a reduction in years at school.
Adults who were stunted at age two completed nearly one year less school than non-stunted individuals, according to a study conducted by University of Atlanta in 2010.
Similarly, a study of Guatemalan adults found that those stunted as children had less schooling, lower test performances, lower household per capita expenditure and a greater likelihood of being poor. For women, stunting in early life was associated with a lower age at first birth and more pregnancies and children, according to a 2008 World Bank study.
A one per cent loss in adult height due to childhood stunting is associated with a 1.4 per cent loss in economic productivity, according to World Bank estimates. Stunted children earn 20 per cent less as adults compared to non-stunted individuals.