Opinion

Food for thought

R Sankar | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 19, 2017

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Raising India’s GDP on mother and child care

India’s growth rate has overtaken China’s and currently India is the fastest growing large economy in the world. This should mean a substantial increase in per capita income and many more new jobs.

But what do these numbers actually mean for Indian citizens? It depends on where you live, your gender and your ability to access economic opportunity. If India intends to continue to grow its economy at a steady rate and achieve double-digit growth, over the coming decades, it will need to aggressively focus on addressing the burden of malnutrition; today, more than 80 million Indian children are facing hardship during the most critical development period of their lives — from the womb to age two. A third of the women in their reproductive age have low body mass index reflecting chronic malnutrition.

Mother is the key

Science has now shown that this “window of opportunity”, from the start of pregnancy to the first two years of life, has a major effect on the future of a child, his community and his nation. If his mother is well nourished, he has a much better chance of surviving his first months of life.

If he is breast-fed for the first six months, followed by the introduction of nutritious complementary foods containing essential vitamins and minerals through to age two, he is more likely to complete his education, have a higher IQ and earn up to 46 per cent more over his lifetime. In fact, a child’s height for age at two years is the single best predictor of human capital.

Today however, almost half of all Indian children will not attain their optimal height and true intellectual potential. And, incredibly, half of the growth failure accrued by two years of age occurs during pregnancy.

We need to invest in maternal nutrition as a means to break the intergenerational cycle of growth failure. It is well documented that growth failure is transmitted across generations through the mother. Small adult women are more likely to have low birth weight babies, in part because maternal size has an important influence on birth weight. In turn, children born with a low birth weight are more likely to have growth failure during childhood and become small adult women.

Setting the bar high

A recent study from Harvard highlights a strong correlation between the attained height of a country’s mothers and the future economic trend for that country. In addition, the study demonstrates that a woman’s attained height is also a strong indicator of her socio-economic status, and can often predict the health, well-being and economic potential of her children. In this regard, assuring quality maternal and early childhood nutrition can not only break the intergenerational cycle of growth failure, but can also have a dramatic impact on India’s economy by adding to its GDP.

Though the Government needs to be in the driver’s seat, there is need for collaboration and partnership with all relevant sectors. No single actor is capable of addressing India’s malnutrition challenge. There is a great hope and euphoria of a better tomorrow. Let the Government lead the fight against malnutrition and do that in a collaborative manner through multi-stakeholder platforms. Let the country invest in rising the height of its mothers and the economy will follow.

The writer is MD Program Director, Nutrition, Tata Trusts

Published on February 19, 2017
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