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Child malnutrition in India - a problem that needs to be addressed

Malnutrition in children under five is the gateway to a life marked by cognitive and physical setbacks. With words like “consumption frenzy” and “food excess” running the world today, high levels of malnutrition shed light on the harsh truth of inequality, lack of access and poverty that continues to determine the lives of millions of people around the world.

Up to the age of five, eating right is the key to creating a healthy foundation for your life course. India is faced with the sad reality that malnutrition, especially among children, is a major obstacle to the country's progress, despite being the second largest food producer in the world.

What is meant by nutritional problems?

Nutritional problemsare related to deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances when it comes to the intake of nutrients and / or energy. The conditions can be divided into two categories. The first category is “malnutrition”, which is a lack of healthy nutrients that leads to stunted growth such as stunting or being underweight. The second category of nutritional problems relates to overeating and problems such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. (WHO, 2020)

There is not a single country in the world today that does not have to deal with nutritional problems as a growing or persistent problem. (WHO, 2020) Within the framework of those affected, around 159 million children under the age of five are too small, 50 million too thin (when a child is too thin for their height due to rapid weight loss or the inability to gain weight) (UNICEF / WHO / World Bank Group, 2019) and 41 million overweight or obese (WHO, 2020). There are numerous factors that lead to malnutrition, some of which are inadequate breastfeeding, lack of access to adequate nutritious foods (especially with rising food prices), and infections of various kinds (WHO, n.d.).

Why is early nutrition vital to a child's proper development?

The human body is resilient and deserves admiration for its ability to adapt to different conditions and environments. However, access to adequate nutrition in the early stages of life is vital and is known to lower life-cycle health risks and prevent noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) (UNICEF, 2019).

The early stage of life is a time of rapid mental and physical development. A particularly important period is the first 1000 days of life - starting as a fetus in the womb until the child's second birthday. Breast milk is essential at this point and is profoundly beneficial for children because it helps develop the brain as well as improve the immune system. Breast milk is tailored to the needs of the child and can reduce the risk of child mortality to the extent that 820,000 children under the age of five can be saved annually worldwide (UNICEF, 2019).

A look at India

The prevalence of malnutrition and its harmful effects on children in India are alarming. A report published by UNICEF found that malnutrition is the cause of 69% of child deaths under five in India and that in the under five age group, every second child suffers from some form of malnutrition (Economic Times, 2019) .

Stunted growth, a major concern of India, can cause irreparable physical harm in children. Aside from the physical ailment caused by malnutrition, it is known to affect brain development, which in turn leads to numerous disadvantages - decreased mental abilities and increased risks of diet-related chronic diseases are just two examples (UNICEF, n.d.).

It can be traced back to before conception if the mother was malnourished and there are also links to poor hygiene and inadequate access to adequate sanitation. At the age of two, the stunted growth cannot be reversed. (UNICEF, n.d.) India has the highest number of children with stunted growth under the age of five (40.6 million), a third of the world's number (UNICEF, n.d.). In Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh alone, more than 50% of children live with stunted growth, although India is a country with 29 different states (UNICEF, n.d.).

Indeed, open defecation is a major contributor to malnutrition (Singh, 2020). For the poorest population groups, this is a reality. It can lead to tons of feces every day that children are exposed to through direct contact (UNICEF, n.d.). In private households there is no clean and safe water and you cannot even wash your hands regularly. One can become infected with and pass on diseases or gastrointestinal diseases transmitted by polluted water. This has resulted in nearly 10,000 deaths in children under five from diarrheal disease in India (UNICEF, n.d.).

Efforts and actions to combat malnutrition

India's progress in curbing open defecation has been commendable. In 2015, around 568 million people practiced defecation in public places because they did not have access to toilets (UNICEF, n.d.). By 2019, the number of people without access to toilets had fallen by an estimated 450 million due to the Prime Minister's Swachh Bharat mission in collaboration with UNICEF (UNICEF, n.d.).

Another government program to combat malnutrition is the National Nutrition Mission (POSHAN Abhiyaan), launched by the Prime Minister in 2018. (NITI Aayog, n.d.) This initiative focuses, among other things, on improving sanitary and hygienic conditions, anemia, prenatal care and optimal breastfeeding for over 130 million children. (NITI Aayog, n.d.).

In addition, UNICEF continues to support both central and state governments by implementing key nutrition programs for children, which include advising carers, reviewing progress on dietary diversity, advocating policy and communication strategies (UNICEF, n.d.).

What can you do to fight child malnutrition?

Malnutrition among children in India remains a predominant problem despite tremendous improvements in recent years. With an abundance of resources and rapidly evolving technologies, access to appropriate nutrients seems like a viable option for every child. Children continue to be the world's hope for a better and safer future, and global efforts must be made to remove an issue that prevents them from reaching their maximum physical and spiritual potential.

Humanium works tirelessly on projects that improve children's rights in India. Our organization supports our local partner organization (Hand in Hand India) in the work of their special school center in Madhya Pradesh for 55 girls and former child workers. These as well as other schools and training centers are closed during the pandemic. The goal of the ‘Residential Special Training Center’ project is to end child labor through education, to provide targeted support and finally to reintegrate the children into public schools.

While this project is educational, it is an unparalleled opportunity to transform the lives of Indian children in many ways, including ending malnutrition and child labor in a country where the practice is still very widespread. If you would like to support Humanium in its work, please consider supporting a child, making a donation, or becoming a volunteer.

Posted by Aditi Partha

Translated by Susanne Russell

Proofreading by Cordula Altekrueger


Economic Times. (2019, October 16). News / Politics and Nation. Retrieved from Economic Times.

NITI Aayog. (n.d.). Poshan-Abhiyaan. Retrieved from NITI Aayog.

Singh, A. (2020, March 2). Books: Perspective of recent advances in acute diarrhea / childhood malnutrition in India. Retrieved from Intechopen.

UNICEF / WHO / World Bank Group. (2019). Joint-malnutrition-estimates-2019. Retrieved from UNICEF.

UNICEF. (2019). The State of the World’s Children 2019. New York: UNICEF.

UNICEF. (n.d.). India / What we do / Early childhood nutrition. Retrieved from UNICEF.

UNICEF. (n.d.). India: What we do / Stop stunting. Retrieved from UNICEF.

UNICEF. (n.d.). India: What we do / Water sanitation hygiene. Retrieved from UNICEF.

WHO. (2020, April 15). News-room / Q-a-detail / Malnutrition. Retrieved from WHO.

WHO. (n.d.). Maternal_child_adolescent. Retrieved from WHO.