This post is part of a series commemorating 30 years of The DHS Program.
By Fred Arnold
Historically, India has suffered through devastating periods of famine, but due to the Green Revolution, improved food storage and distribution, and other factors, famine has been all but eradicated in the country. However, malnutrition continues to threaten the health of India’s population.
The National Family Health Surveys (as DHS surveys are known in India) have been documenting the nutrition situation in India since 1992 (by measuring the height, weight, and anemia status of children and adults, and by assessing infant and young child feeding practices). These surveys have brought to the nation’s consciousness the excessively high levels of stunting, wasting, underweight, and anemia that young children in India continue to suffer from. The most recent NFHS survey (NFHS-3) found that nearly half of children under five are stunted, 43% are underweight, 20% are wasted, and 7 out of every 10 children are anemic. Stunting among children was as high as 60% in the lowest wealth quintile, but was still considerable (25%) even in the highest wealth quintile. These findings were widely reported in the media, were agonized over by international organizations and NGOs, and were prominently discussed at the highest levels of government. In two national addresses, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh revealed that he had seen the results of the National Family Health Survey, and he declared the poor nutrition of India’s children to be “a national shame.” He immediately responded by writing a letter to the Chief Ministers of every state in the country, ordering them to take up the fight against malnutrition “on a war footing” and to report back to him every quarter on the progress that had been made.
Based on the NFHS-3 findings, that same year I wrote a paper on the nutrition landscape in India, which was published in Demography India and presented as the keynote speech at the Annual Meeting of the Indian Association for the Study of Population. That reached yet another important constituency that joined the national dialogue on nutrition.
Another aspect of nutrition that was documented in that paper was the emerging dual burden of simultaneous undernutrition and overnutrition among Indian adults. About one-third of women and men were abnormally thin and about 1 in 8 were overweight or obese, meaning that only about half of adults had a normal nutritional status. The figures are even more alarming in certain segments of the population. Thirty to forty percent of women were overweight or obese in some of India’s largest cities, and even in urban slums, 20-30% of women fell in that category.
Since NFHS-3, there have been encouraging signs of improvements in nutrition in some places, but discouraging signs of stagnation or deterioration in others. The results of the NFHS-4 survey, which is just about to go into the field, are eagerly awaited to provide more definitive information on the current nutrition situation. And when the next chapter in India’s nutrition history is written, NFHS will be there to monitor trends and provide vital information to guide informed policymaking and program planning.
Fred Arnold, Technical Deputy Director—Dr. Arnold is responsible for setting the overall technical direction for The DHS Program and coordinating the design of DHS questionnaires. He has coordinated technical assistance to four large-scale National Family Health Surveys in India, which have included interviews with more than one million women and men, working with more than 40 organizations (government ministries, funding agencies, international organizations, and implementing agencies) in the conduct of the surveys. He has been involved in the design and implementation of surveys in 15 additional countries. Dr. Arnold has a Ph.D. in economics/demography from the University of Michigan. He has authored more than 150 publications in areas such as malaria; HIV; maternal, newborn and child health; nutrition; son preference; international migration; and the value of children.