When people around the world think of India, they imagine bustling cities, lively markets, buzzing technology centers, and a young and vibrant workforce.
Human capital is one of India’s greatest assets. Yet, the world’s fastest-growing economy hasn’t touched millions of Indian citizens at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In particular, the 44 million children under the age of five who are stunted because they aren’t getting enough of the right nutrition.
Nutrition is key to unlocking every child’s potential. Well-nourished children are better equipped to fend off diseases. They do better in school. And they grow up to become more productive members of society.
A major new study, the Global Nutrition Report, released today in Delhi, shows that India has made progress toward ensuring that every child can achieve their potential. Between 2006 and 2014, stunting among children under the age of five dropped from 48 percent to 39 percent – almost double the rate of decline compared to the previous seven-year period. Nearly all Indian states achieved declines, proving that progress is possible in every part of the country.
But the fact remains that nearly four of every 10 young children growing up in India today are not getting enough of the right kinds of nutrition to help their body and mind grow to its full potential. And in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, the report found that declines have been much slower than the national average, indicating the issue is particularly entrenched.
These 44 million children are not just a statistic in a report. They are India’s future, and every single one of them deserves a chance to live a healthy and productive life.
Improving nutrition in India is key to India’s continued economic prosperity. It’s also the right thing to do from the standpoint of equity. Based on our organizations’ work on nutrition in India, we believe there are three components to addressing the problem:
First, India needs better information to design effective nutrition interventions and track progress. For too long, policymakers have had to rely on outdated and incomplete statistics to make policy decisions in India. Nutrition data has to be collected more frequently and consistently across regions to ensure that children are getting the nutrition they need.
The release of UNICEF’s Rapid Survey on Children last year marked a positive step forward in providing relevant data, filling a key information gap that had existed for the last nine years. Endorsement of a core set of nutrition outcome indicators, and collection of data in every state every 2-3 years by the government should help monitor progress against malnutrition.
But better data only moves us part of the way. We have seen that using that information to drive policy change leads to better results. A set of cost-effective nutrition interventions is at our fingertips – such as interventions in the 1,000 days between a mother’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday, programs that ensure that women and girls get the nutrition thy need, food fortification to address micronutrient deficiencies, and community based programs to address the needs of children with severe acute malnutrition. States that have made good progress on these can do more to share best practices with high-burden states and strengthen the government’s existing thinking and action on nutrition.
Finally – and most importantly – political leadership is essential and India has demonstrated the political will to prioritize programs that will eliminate malnutrition. A shared responsibility across all levels of government and sectors of society is required. In particular, the Government’s proposed National Nutrition Mission will play a key role in strengthening the work across different ministries and departments to deliver against the national nutrition targets and ensure well-nourished future of women and children.
India has the know-how and the financial capacity to ensure that every child not only survives, but thrives. That has to start in a child’s early years with enough of the right kinds of nutrition. We believe the Indian people share our commitment to this, and we are optimistic that by working together it is well within reach for India to tackle this very solvable challenge.
Ratan Tata is chair of the board of the Tata Trusts. Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This blog first appeared in The Times of India