The start you get in life determines the future course not just for an individual but for a country.
Just how critical that is, is brought home in a series of research papers published in the medical journal Lancet earlier this month.
The research says that children who lose out on that early start, that is, they are deprived of the required nutrition and care, go on to earn 26% less on average than others. This applies to 250 million children across the world, over 40% of them under the age of five years. This is because stunting and acute poverty will act as a barrier in the way of them realizing their full potential.
Just how critical the need to invest in the first two years of a child’s life has been shown time and again in many studies. The nutrition children get in these years determines not just physical, but also mental growth. Addressing those shortfalls at a later stage is not possible, especially when it comes to cognitive or reasoning abilities. The human brain develops faster at conception and through the first 2-3 years of life.
In terms of numbers, we are looking at 250 million adults unable to realize their full potential. Economically, this translates into income loss and low productivity.
India needs to act quickly if it wants to halt this social and economic loss. The cost of not taking steps to reduce stunting in children, is said to be 8.3% of India’s GDP. We are looking at this lack of action affecting future generations.
A change in approach is called for. Perhaps there is a need to look at programs followed in countries like Peru where under a World Bank-supported program, conditional cash transfers were given to mothers of stunted children. They were also educated about the importance of giving nutritious foods to their kids. Incentives were given to health clinics to support them. The monthly payments depended on how the children progressed.
There is a need for a relook at early childhood and maternal care programs because clearly they are not doing a good enough job of reaching thousands of mothers and babies, especially in large parts of rural India.