Lawrence Haddad is the Director of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK. In 2009, he published an overview of studies by 30 Indian scientists on the causes of malnutrition in India. Haddad said that malnutrition is caused by more than a simple lack of food.
Lawrence Haddad: Malnutrition is about dirty water which makes a kid so sick that even if they get food to eat, they can’t absorb it in their guts. Malnutrition is about parents not having enough time or knowledge to feed their kids every hour when they’re very young, or with the right kind of food.
Haddad told EarthSky that malnutrition in India remains something of an mystery. He said that in other developing countries, when income goes up, malnutrition goes down by 3-4%. But, even with India’s booming economy, the numbers of malnourished children have remained practically the same. Haddad’s research has led him to believe that the problem may rest with lack of governmental organization.
Lawrence Haddad: Malnutrition is one of those issues that falls between a number of ministries, a number of departments. It’s not Agriculture, it’s not Health, it’s not Women’s Empowerment, it’s not Social Progress. It’s everybody’s business but nobody’s responsibility, and we could see that pattern at every level.
He said malnutrition is affecting children under three most severely and can cause irreversible brain damage that may not be easily observed. Malnutrition is difficult to tackle, he said, because it requires enormous amounts of behavior change.
Lawrence Haddad: One of the things we suggested is that the Indian government focus on getting kids breastfed in the first hour of their life. Getting kids breastfed has been shown to reduce neonatal mortality by 20%. That has to be done at the point of the delivery.
Haddad got his malnutrition data from the Indian government itself, which had surveyed the weight to age ratios of thousands of children across the country. He talked more about the 0-2 year old age group, and how that group suffers the most severe damage from malnutrition. He said a governmental branch called ICDS has been effective at feeding undernourished 3-6 year olds, but not 0-2s.
Lawrence Haddad: The community center worker, usually there’s just one worker for about 100 to 200 households, and she’s pretty preoccupied with food preparation and food serving for 3-6 years olds, there’s no time for her to take care at 0-2 year olds. So the 0-2’s are either taken care of badly, or they aren’t brought to those community centers at all.
He said that most other developing countries have developed infrastructure in dealing with infants and toddlers, but that in India, there a political turf war between several government agencies, with no one in particular responsible for malnutrition in that lower age group. He expressed alarm, saying that it may take political pressure from outside of India to change the situation.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.