In 2005, Maharashtra’s Palghar district became the face of chronic child malnutrition in India as reports emerged of the death of 718 children due to malnutrition. Palghar, a predominantly tribal region, with a 37 percent Adivasi population, is only 114 kilometres away from Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra and one of the richest cities in Asia. The next decade saw India’s gross domestic product grow in double digits, enthralling both the foreign and national press. Mumbai, the country’s business capital drew much adulation.
The same decade later, in 2016, 600 children died due to undernutrition in Palghar district. Though scarcely reported during the time, India had more malnourished children than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. Palghar’s epidemic levels of malnutrition were further worsened during the government-imposed lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 which created a state of food shock in the district. In June 2020, the district reported 2,459 cases of severe and moderate acute malnutrition, a sharp increase of two percent in just two months.
The story of severe child nutrition is, sadly, not limited to Palghar district alone. Districts across Maharashtra report alarming rates of childhood malnutrition that continues unabated regardless of the country’s purported economic successes. The National Family Health Survey 5, a nationwide survey of a wide range of health and social indicators conducted by the ministry of health and family welfare in 2019 and 2020, paints a grim picture of child nutritional status across India. The trends in Maharashtra are particularly alarming considering that the state cannot be called resource starved. In fact, the state of Maharashtra continues to be the richest state in terms of GDP, seventh richest in terms of per capita income, and highest in tax collections.
Despite having a high number of billionaires living in the state and the presence of businesses creating unparalleled wealth, the state’s social welfare programmes continue to be chronically underfunded. The child nutrition program is no exception. In 2017, the child development budget was cut by 31 percent. The state budgets since are more of the same. In the last state budget, presented on 6 March 2020, the nutrition allocations were cut by staggering 32 percent. These cuts, though often debated, presented and passed by primarily upper-caste bureaucrats, legislators and ministers, disproportionately affect Dalit and Adivasi children.
The findings of NFHS 5 further underline the progression of this nutritional apartheid, in comparison to NFHS 4 which was conducted in 2015 and 2016. NFHS 5 found that 25.6 percent of children in Maharashtra under the age of five were wasted. Of those surveyed, 36.1 percent were underweight. Both these numbers have stayed largely stagnant since NHFS 4. However, the percentage of children under five who were stunted and severely wasted rose significantly, to 35.2 percent and 10.9 percent. The percentage of children who are overweight has also seen a sharp increase from 1.9 percent to 4.1 percent. A child who is underweight or stunted, has a lower weight or height than they are supposed to for their age. Wasting refers to having a lower weight than the average child would for their height. In nearly all these indicators, Maharashtra is worse than the national average, despite the state’s relative wealth.