Tackling the Asian Enigma

April 4th, 2012

India has the world’s largest area under rice cultivation, and is the second largest producer of the grain after China. The country retains its position as the world’s largest producer of milk and also has the largest child development program in the world. And, it will have the largest young population in the world by 2020.

Yet, a third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. Malnutrition, which not only accounts for more than 50 per cent of all childhood deaths but also impairs development and learning capabilities in children, is more common here than in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the long run, poor levels of nutrition also impact labour productivity and economic growth.

Given the current rate of malnutrition and the likelihood of an increase in the working-age (15-59 years) population from 58 per cent of the total population in 2001, to about 64 per cent by 2021, the youngest nation in the world will have an unhealthy, less educated and inappropriately skilled population. In absolute numbers, there will be around 63.5 million new entrants to the working age group between 2011 and 2016. Yet their working capacity will be questionable.

The Government of India has sustained the largest effort in history to improve nutritional standards, through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. The scheme was implemented over 20 years ago and now operates in 400,000 of the country’s 600,000 villages. Despite the effort, India continues to be a part of the Asian Enigma.

The Asian Enigma is the phenomenon of relatively high levels of under-nutrition among children and adult women in South Asia, despite more favourable records with respect to infant mortality, women’s education, food availability or other aspects of living conditions in comparison with, for example, sub-Saharan Africa.

The ‘demographic dividend’ that India will soon be face-to-face with would pose a challenge, putting tremendous strain on India’s land and water resources.

The industry is going to face the challenge of this demographic change in more ways than one. For example, 1.2 million people are engaged in infrastructure activities, and about 30 million are into labour work. When 58.3 million people are expected to be employed in the infrastructure sector by 2020, there will still be a shortfall of 3.64 million architects and 1.1 million managers and planners during the same period. Even if these many people are available, their output and productivity and capacity to learn skills will be questionable, given the current rate of undernourishment that India faces.

People make an organisation run. With a lesser number of effective people available to work, there can be questions of whether India’s growth rate will be sustainable – and if so, to what extent?

Other than that, India also has another challenge to take care of. The performance of the country in terms of mean years of schooling is not only much lower than that of countries such as Sri Lanka, China, and Egypt, which have higher per capita incomes, but also lags behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, who have lower per capita incomes. It is also much lower than the global average.

India may have emerged as the fourth largest economy globally with a high growth rate, but it is still the poorest among the G-20.

According to the Human Development Report (HDR) published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), India is still in the ‘medium human development’ category, while countries such as China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, and Vietnam rank better.

What India needs is a 360-degree approach involving every stakeholder in the nation-building process. The government has to ensure that its development programmes reach the needy and the deprived they were designed for. Local leaders at every block level have to be empowered and motivated to become a part of the programs run by government. Private partners need to be enrolled with government initiatives to bring in professionalism. Individual leaders and team workers at village levels have to be identified to help build a healthy nation.

In order to benefit from health spending, the process needs to be effective through improvements in accountability and incentives. The improvements in health status will be worth the effort as they turn out to have positive effect on growth.

While creating awareness can be one of the solutions to the malnutrition problem, it needs to be linked to availability of resources via the public food distribution system. Another response to this crisis can be to address the issue of inadequate care of females by husbands and elders. This is one of the major reasons for child malnutrition in India, as an ill-fed mother will give birth to an underweight child. There is growing evidence that if women have a claim on the household income, it will lead to improved education, nutrition and health.

Awareness also needs to be generated about good nutrition practices both in urban and rural areas. Studies have shown that proper nutrition in the early months and taking care to ensure that the right food is given at the right time and in the right way matters a lot in the child development process.

Readers are encouraged to suggest ideas that help overcome the challenges.

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