Child malnutrition is one of the most pressing public health issues currently in India. According to the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report 2021, India recorded the highest child wasting rate of any country at 17.3 per cent in 2020. Moreover, recent data from National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) shows that roughly 35 per cent of children under the age of five are affected by stunting in India.

The UN Policy 2018 reports that nearly four out of 10 children in India do not meet their full human potential owing to chronic malnutrition. Besides, with one in every three children malnourished, malnutrition is also thought to be the predominant risk factor for deaths in children under five, accounting for 68.2 per cent of the total under-five deaths.

Food insecurity

Research carried out in various countries in which the prevalence of child malnutrition is high, shows that an important cause of this problem is household food insecurity (which is described as a situation that exists when all people in a household, at all times, do not have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life). This, in fact, is likely to be the case for India as well since the level of household food insecurity is alarmingly high in the country.

Indeed, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report 2020 shows that while 27.8 per cent of India's population suffered from moderate or severe food insecurity in 2014-16, the proportion rose to 31.6 per cent in 2017-19. The number of food insecure people grew from 42.65 crore in 2014-16 to 48.86 crore in 2017-19. India accounted for 22 per cent of the global burden of food insecurity, the highest for any country, in 2017-19. Currently India ranks 101st among 135 countries according to the GHI 2021.

It is definitely not the case that the government is unaware of the fact that widespread prevalence of household food insecurity is likely to be a leading cause of child malnutrition in India. Despite this, we were surprised to see that in last year’s Budget, there was a whopping 27 per cent decline in the funds allocated towards the nutrition of children and women.

Specifically, from ₹3,700 crore in the fiscal year of 2020-21, the allocation towards the nutrition of children and women was cut down to ₹2,700 crore in the Budget 2021-22. While some economists defend this move by stating that the 2021-22 Budget was rejigged and thus comparisons between the 2020-21 and 2021-22’s Budgets were not meaningful, it was clear that actual government spending on nutrition schemes was lower than the budgeted amount in 2020-21.

With the 2022-23 Budget coming up in the next few days, one can only hope that the government does not yet again engage in such drastic cut backs on allocation to nutrition of children and women. In fact, an increase in allocation (at least to former levels) would be most welcome.

Pandemic impact

The ongoing pandemic has wreaked havoc in the lives of billions of Indians, especially those belonging towards the lower end of the economic ladder. There has been a substantial growth of joblessness in the economy, and many have unfortunately been thrown into the clutches of poverty and destitution.

This, quite naturally, has made achievement of food security a distant dream for a huge proportion of Indian households, suggesting that the risk of child malnutrition reaching epidemic proportions in India is more than ever. It is for this reason, an increase in budgetary allocation towards nutrition of children and women is most essential to say the least.

Expansion of existing nutrition programs (e.g., POSHAN) and introduction of new ones is also something that we would expect to see in the Budget announcement. However, the government must not target such interventions exclusively towards the households who are conventionally thought to be “falling behind”.

For instance, many nutritional policies and hunger alleviation programmes in India (and also other developing countries) target households only in rural areas, households below the poverty line, households belonging to minority social groups, and so on.

The assumption here is that these are the sub-populations which require government assistance when it comes to ensuring food security and reducing child malnutrition. However, there is growing evidence which suggests that food insecurity and child malnutrition are alarmingly high among many households which do not belong to any of these categories.

In sum, thus, we hope that the government puts the spotlight back on the problem of child malnutrition and outlines concrete ways to address it in the upcoming Budget.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Economics at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCRT