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.