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Despite Prosperity, India's Children Not Healthier

A new study finds economic growth did not have an impact on childhood nutrition in India.
A new study finds economic growth did not have an impact on childhood nutrition in India.

Greatly expanded middle class hasn't led to improved childhood nutrition

A new study in India has found that the country's rapid economic growth over the past two decades has not led to improved childhood nutrition.

The study used nationwide data from three surveys starting in the early 1990s. During the period covered by these studies, India experienced dramatic economic growth, including a greatly expanded middle class.

Harvard University's S.V. Subramanian and his colleagues wanted to see if childhood nutrition improved during this growth period. In the studies, more than 77,000 children were weighed and measured so the researchers could compare age, weight, and height. That, in turn, was used to calculate standard measures of adequate nutrition in states throughout India.

"So one of the nice things about this design was, we could look at change," Subramanian explains. "So if I improved the level of economic well-being of the state, does that lead to the reduction in the child's risk of being undernourished? And when we did that, lo and behold, there was absolutely no association."

During the period covered by the three surveys, growth was not even across all sectors of the economy. Technology and service sectors boomed, but there was much less effect on India's vast rural countryside and its agricultural economy.

Subramanian says that in theory, it doesn't matter that economic growth was not uniform.

"Even if the economic growth happens exclusively from a small section of the population, the government potentially gets more revenue, but they have to be investing that additional revenue that they generated in health goods in order to make a difference. But it doesn't seem that any of that was going on."

The Indian surveys were part of a multinational project called Demographic and Health Surveys, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Subramanian says he and his colleagues are looking at other surveys in the project to see how - or whether - economic growth and childhood nutrition are linked in other low- and middle-income countries.