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Low height of children in India

  • India, which has moved up in income and several development indicators, has made very little progress in the decade between 2006 and 2016 in one key aspect: the height of children
  • One major reason for this is the lack of improvement in sanitation over the past decade, new research suggests
  • Indian children and adults, especially female and from marginalized groups, are among the shortest in the world, data from the International Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) system show
  • India accounts for nearly a third of the world’s stunted children, and this proportion has not changed much since 2005-06


Inter-country differences in height are often commonly believed to be on account of genetics and ethnicity, but the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that “the effect of ethnic differences on the growth of infants and young children in populations is small compared with the effects of the environment

A population’s height is measured in relation to what that population’s height could be in optimal conditions—optimal family health, food and sanitation

India’s growth not reflecting on child heights

  • Despite its economic and other successes over the last decade, India has not done well on some of the key determinants of child height
  • Maternal nutrition, which plays a big role in the birth weight and height of the child, has a lifelong impact on the child’s health and other life outcomes
  • Despite improvements, three out of 10 Indian women still begin their pregnancies underweight, and half of all pregnant women in 2015-16 were anaemic
  • While there have been improvements in breastfeeding rates, the dietary diversity for infants has actually worsened

Role of sanitation

  • The lack of sanitation and the practice of open defecation is another big driver of childhood undernutrition
  • Faecal germs spread by open defecation cause debilitating diarrhoeal diseases among children, which hamper their ability to absorb nutrients and grow
  • Indian districts with low levels of access to toilets have much higher rates of child undernourishment compared with districts with relatively high levels of access to toilets
  • If India had halved its 2005-06 rates of open defecation by 2015-16, child heights would be one-tenth of a standard deviation better than they are, and if it had eliminated open defecation, the effect would have been more than doubled

Way forward

Across the world, people are taller than they have ever been, propelled by economic growth and better health outcomes. India is getting taller too, but not at the rate that its economic progress would predict.

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