In a stark and chilling reminder of the realities of life in India, the recently released family health survey (NFHS 4) results show that over 58% of children below five years of age are anaemic, that is, they suffer from insufficient haemoglobin in the blood, leaving them exhausted, vulnerable to infections, and possibly affecting their brain development. The survey, which was carried out in 2015-16 and covered six lakh households, also showed that around 38% of children in the same age group were stunted, 21% were wasted and 36% underweight.
While all the internationally accepted markers of children’s health have improved since the last such survey in 2005-06, the levels of undernourishment, caused mainly by poverty, are still high and the improvement too slow.
Based on the 2011 Census data, the total number of children under five in India in 2015 is projected at 12.4 crore. So, around 7.2 crore children are anaemic, nearly 5 crore are stunted, around 2.6 crore are wasted and 4.4 crore are underweight. These numbers are not too different from those in 2005-06. Since population has increased, their share is down.
The World Health Organisation says high levels of these markers are clear indications of “poor socio-economic conditions” and “suboptimal health and/or nutritional conditions”. In short, lack of food, unhealthy living conditions and poor health delivery systems.
The WHO defines wasting as low weight for height, stunting as low height for age, and underweight as low weight for age.
The survey also found that just over half of all pregnant women were anaemic. This would automatically translate into their newborn being weak. Overall, 53% of women and 23% of men in the 15-49 age group were anaemic.
There is wide variation among states. The data for UP has not been released in view of the ongoing polls, according to Balram Paswan, professor at Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences which was the nodal agency for the survey done for the health ministry. But poorer states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Assam, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have higher than national average rates on all markers.
More advanced states like those in the south, Haryana and Gujarat have slightly better numbers but are still at unacceptable levels. In Tamil Nadu, 51% children are anaemic while in Kerala it is over one-third. In many states, stunting has declined but the share of severely wasted children has increased. These are clear signs of an endemic crisis of hunger in the country that policy makers don’t appear to be addressing.