Several states across the country have reversed course and recorded worsening levels of child malnutrition despite dramatic improvements in sanitation and better access to fuel and drinking water.
This is one of the startling revelations in the first-phase data of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2019-20 released by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on December 12 and marks a shift since the last NFHS in 2015-16.
The latest data pertains to 17 states, including Maharashtra, Bihar, and West Bengal and five Union Territories (including J&K) and, crucially, captures the state of health in these states before the Covid pandemic. Phase 2 of the survey, which will cover other states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, was delayed due to the pandemic and its results are expected to be made available in May 2021.
Data from the first phase shows that several states have either witnessed stunned improvements or sustained reversals on child (under 5 years of age) malnutrition parameters such as child stunting; child wasting; share of children underweight and child mortality rate.
Child wasting reflects acute undernutrition and refers to children having low weight for their height. India has always had a high level of child wasting but instead of reducing it, several states such as Telangana, Kerala, Bihar, and Assam as well as the UT of J&K have witnessed an increase. When it comes to the proportion of underweight children, again, several big states, Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Assam and Kerala, have seen an increase.
But the most surprising reversals have happened in child stunting, which reflects chronic undernutrition, and refers to the percentage of children who have low height for their age. Stunting, more than any other factor, is likely to have long-lasting adverse effects on the cognitive and physical development of a child. Telangana, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, and West Bengal — all has increased levels of child stunting.