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New Studies on Malnutrition in India

malnutrition in india
Though it seems ironic, the leading culprit of malnutrition in India may not be lack of access to food. New studies instead suggest that malnutrition is a result of poor sanitation.

Children from developing nations are often exposed to bacteria through germ-infested water; this exposure affects their bodies’ ability to grow and develop. Energy is diverted from the aforementioned areas in order to allow children to fight infection. This process leads to growth stunting and perpetual hunger.

A fact that is even more surprising, and further validates this new hypothesis, is that malnutrition is much more common in India than in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to UNICEF, stunted growth affects more than 65 million children in India under the age of 5. In other words, one in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India.

Stunting poses grim consequences; it is not only responsible for the deaths of 1 million children under 5 years old each year, but those who survive suffer considerable cognitive deficits. Ramanan Laxinarayan, Vice President for research and policy at the Public Health Foundation for India, claims that it is the largest loss of human potential in any country in history.

For years, it has been assumed that malnutrition in India is a direct result of insufficient food intake. However, given India’s long economic boom and the unfaltering prevalence of malnutrition, it seems that scarcity of food is not the issue.

The government has tried to address malnutrition for years by distributing vast stores of subsidized food. The failure to reverse the epidemic is what forced researchers to go back to the drawing board. This time around they identified sanitation as the root cause.

Half of India’s population defecates outdoors. What‘s more, no Indian city has a comprehensive waste treatment system and most Indian rivers are open sewers. The result is an abundance of waste polluting both soil and water. Due to population growth, the exposure to human waste within the last decade has risen by nearly 50 percent.

According to economist Dean Spears, India’s population defecates outdoors far more than anywhere else in the world. The correlation between malnutrition in India and open defecation is undeniable. The difference in average height between an African and a child living in India, for example, can be directly attributed to where the surrounding population goes to the bathroom outdoors.

Open defecation has a long history in India; ancient Hindu texts reveal the culturally embedded custom to relieve oneself outdoors and far from home. For this reason, the government faces a stubborn population that is reluctant to install indoor toilets.

India currently spends 60 times more on food and job programs than on improving sanitation. In order to reverse this spending habit, the country must undergo what Jairam Ramesh, former sanitation minister, calls a “cultural revolution.” The people must first recognize the glaringly intimate relationship between open defecation and malnutrition in India before change can occur.

– Samantha Scheetz
Sources: New York Times, UNICEF, The Lancet
Photo: WUNRN