“I saw some of this on my trip to India in the mid-2000’s. We are so lucky to be Americans. To me, the reasons, despite a pretty developed democracy, are as follows:
- There was a class system in India that prevented the lower classes from competing with the upper classes. I understand its changing, but it will take a very long time.
- The upper classes who run the country not only don’t want competition from the lower classes, they don’t want to compete with foreigners (they want outsourcing jobs from foreigners, but no domestic competition). In other words, they don’t embrace free market competition and capitalism. They have a socialist system combined with mostly crony capitalism. That’s why so many of their best and brightest have left and come to America and elsewhere and are doing fabulous.
- The upper classes are overeducated in too many non-practical activities. I met with the equivalent of a Federal Reserve Board Governor at his office. The building was run down and the elevators no longer worked. We walked up the stairs to his huge office. It was neat as a pin, but he had old, threadbare furniture and there were a half dozen or so guys in his office (who I guess were assistants). Later that night, I called my wife and was telling her about this visit and she said very logically, “why don’t they put those guys to work fixing the building?” My response to her was, “I’m guessing they don’t have those types of skills. They probably all have Ph.D.’s in economics or something like that.”
- One day, we took the train from Delhi to Agra (to see the Taj Mahal)……and it took hours. Again, it was neat as a pin, but very old and inefficient. I later read that the train, which is a government-run transportation system was losing a lot of money. I thought to myself, how can that be? It’s not a for-profit entity, how can it not cover its cost of service…it certainly isn’t spending money to upgrade its trains or tracks? Well, its like the U.S. Post Office……now a government jobs program that loses billions a year. The bottom line is India has too many of these inefficient government activities.
- And clearly, they have too many people who can’t take care of themselves and overwhelming number (so many on the streets and clearly very poor sanitation). It was fascinating though because I met an even more senior government official (my vague recollection was he was the equivalent of the U.S. Treasury Secretary) when I was in Delhi….besides making sure that I was only bringing jobs to India (and would not compete with any domestic firms), he was proud of India’s enormous population. I vaguely recall him implying that Indians would be everywhere in the world, almost like some sort of long-term economic weapon.
So what’s the answer? You have to open India up to truly free market competition…which doesn’t care what class you came from (or whether you got a high grade on a state test or went to the best schools), it only cares about your ideas and what you can accomplish. You then over time privatize all those inefficient government activities and layoff the excess workers. Some of them will never do a thing, but enough of them will be forced to become entrepreneurs and start businesses and you will get this economy going. I’m not sure how to address the enormous population….that’s beyond my expertise.”, Mike Perry
October 15, 2015, Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times
Half the Kids in This Part of India Are Stunted
Sahliha Bano with her 11-month-old daughter, Munni, in rural India. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times
Lucknow, India — I’m on my annual win-a-trip journey, in which I take a university student with me on a reporting trip. I’m traipsing through Indian villages with the winner, Austin Meyer of Stanford University, to tackle one of the world’s great whodunits: Why are hundreds of millions of children here stunted physically and mentally?
India is a vigorous democracy that has sent an orbiter to Mars. Yet its children are more likely to starve than children in far poorer nations in Africa.
In a remarkable failure of democracy, India is the epicenter of global malnutrition: 39 percent of Indian children are stunted from poor nutrition, according to government figures (other estimates are higher). Stunting is worse in India than in Burkina Faso or Haiti, worse than in Bangladesh or North Korea.
Here in Uttar Pradesh, a vast state of 200 million people in India’s north, the malnutrition is even more horrifying. By the government’s own reckoning, a slight majority of children under age 5 in this state are stunted — worse than in any country in Africa save Burundi, according to figures in the 2015 Global Nutrition Report.
The greatest cost of stunting isn’t stature but brain power. Repeated studies have found that malnutrition early in life reduces intelligence in ways that can never be regained. The brains of stunted children don’t develop properly — you see the difference in brain scans — which is perhaps why stunted children on average drop out of school early.
“We’re not focused on stunting because we fear kids will be too short,” said Shawn Baker, a nutrition expert at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who accompanied me on visits to rural areas here. “We’re focused on stunting because it’s a proxy for cognitive development, and because kids are at risk of dying.”
The win-a-trip journey is a chance to spotlight issues that aren’t sexy but matter most. And when hundreds of millions of children are unnecessarily malnourished, holding them back all their lives, that should be a global priority.
Now a couple of bold new theories are emerging to explain why India does so poorly in child nutrition.
The first is that the low status of women leads to maternal nutrition in India that is much worse than previously believed. Women often eat last in Indian households — and 42 percent of Indian women are underweight before pregnancy, according to Diane Coffey, a Princeton University economist. Then during pregnancy, Indian women gain only half the recommended weight.
“The average woman in India ends pregnancy weighing less than the average woman in sub-Saharan Africa begins pregnancy,” Coffey writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The upshot is that many children are malnourished in the uterus and never recover.
The second new theory is poor sanitation, particularly open defecation. About half of Indians defecate outside without using toilets. The result is that children pick up parasites and chronic infections that impair the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients — and 117,000 Indian children die each year from diarrhea, according to Unicef.
That may explain an anomaly: Infant mortality is lower for Indian Muslims than for Hindus, even though Muslims are poorer. One reason may be that Muslim villagers are more likely to use outhouses.
This is a life-or-death matter. Governments invest in tanks and fighter aircraft to defend their people, when the greater threat to their citizens comes from their own poop.
Still, few recognize the risk. Worldwide, far more people have access to mobile phones than to toilets. That’s because phones are seen as the higher priority. In the villages that Austin and I visited, villagers routinely had mobile phones, but very few had outhouses. Even fewer used them: It’s easy for aid groups to build latrines, harder to get people to use them.
One woman we met, Sahliha Bano, is a villager with an 11-month-old girl named Munni, who is acutely malnourished. The family doesn’t have a toilet (few in the village do).
Bano herself reflected other factors sometimes associated with malnutrition. She is illiterate and was married at about 14, and Munni is her sixth child. Bano rejects birth control because she believes it is against God’s wishes.
These are complex issues, but if Afghanistan and Bangladesh can make great progress (along with Indian states like Kerala), so can all of India. Manmohan Singh, India’s former prime minister, called child malnutrition “a national shame” — but there’s still no political will to address it.
Instead, in a political move to win support from religious groups that object to eating fertilized eggs, the state of Madhya Pradesh recently rejected the idea of serving eggs in child-feeding programs. The result will be more children added to the hundreds of millions held back unnecessarily for the rest of their lives — as a great nation weakens itself.
Read blog posts by my win-a-trip winner, Austin Meyer, about a struggle to save a baby’s life, about India’s blockade of Nepal and about the difference that nutrition makes for two children in the same village. And sign up for my free newsletter, giving access to my twice-weekly columns and commentary, and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on October 15, 2015, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: Half These Kids Are Stunted .