Why are Indian Children Shorter than African Children?

A way to judge a child’s health is to measure his or her height according to age. According to WHO, the median height for a 6 months-old boy is 70 cm, and it’s 66 cm for a girl. The median height for a 2-year-old boy is 88 cm and that of a girl is 86 cm. WHO has created detailed graphs to measure heights.

This green line is the median height for different ages. While these are the heights of children who’re 2-3 standard deviations away from the median. A child is considered stunted if his or her height is two standard deviations less than the median. Take a look at this graph. It compares the height of Indian children in various states with that of children in various African countries. As you can see, UP and Bihar’s values are closest to -2 i.e. closest to stunting value.

The key message of this graph is that Indian states might have the same GDP per capita as African countries, but their children are on average shorter. On the country level, India might have higher GDP per capita than some African countries, but stunting is more prevalent in India. Some researchers call this a “South Asian enigma.” Why’re Indian children so short? Two economists, Rohini Pande and Seema Jayachandran addressed this issue in their paper.

The answer tells a lot about our society, especially how Indian parents treat their children. Many of you might think that the difference is because of genetics. Africans are taller and stronger than Indians. Thus, African children must be taller too. But researchers discard this theory. They came across something interesting. They found that the first child of Indian families is less likely to be stunted than an African child i.e. on average, the first child of Indian families is taller than the first child of an African family. But the second and third children in India are more likely to be stunted than African children. If you’re aware of Indian society, you would’ve guessed the reason already.

It’s because many Indian families invest more resources in their first child and neglect the others. And this isn’t enough to explain the enigma. Like we mentioned before, the first child of Indian families is less likely to be stunted than an African child. But this doesn’t hold for all the eldest children. This holds only when the first child is a boy but not when it’s a girl. And this shouldn’t be surprising as most Indian families prefer a boy over a girl. According to the report by the Civil Registration System for 2019, for 1000 boys, among 18 Indian states/UT, there was no region that had more girls than boys.

Our patriarchal society, where boys are preferred over girls, is responsible for this. And this argument grew stronger when the researchers observed states where women are well-off. For example, you can mark that the height of girls in Kerala and the Northeast is more than the average of India. In fact, the researchers found that there’s no difference in heights among children (belonging to the same family) in Kerala. The height advantage is not seen in all sons, but rather only in the eldest son. Jayachandran and Pande present two arguments to support this. First, they found that in a family where all the children are boys, the eldest son is most likely to be taller.

The logical explanation for this could be that a family’s money starts running out after every birth due to poor planning. Thus, the eldest son gets more resources than the younger ones. That’s where the second argument comes in. The researchers found that a son, who is the second child of the family, is taller in India than in Africa only if his older sibling is a girl i.e. he’s the family’s eldest son.

The researchers found that families allocate resources like nutritious foods, iron supplements, tetanus shots, and medical check-ups to a pregnant woman as long as there is a possibility that the child will be the firstborn son. After the birth of the first son, these investments drop off whether the subsequent child is a boy or a girl. Unfortunately, the situation of stunting could worsen in India due to the pandemic. According to 2020’s Child Well-being Report, more than 10 crore children are at risk of malnutrition due to the pandemic. And the pandemic has affected a lot of families.

According to economist Mahesh Vyas, 97% of Indians have become poorer due to the pandemic. In such a challenging economic environment, people reduce their spending and start saving money. And when it comes to saving, we often think about the FDs. But there are other investment products that you could consider. Mostly, the returns on FDs are 4-5%, which is the lowest in a decade. In such a situation, you can consider insurance products that offer guaranteed returns.

We learned that on average, Indian children are shorter than their African counterparts. But the first male child in India is taller than the first male child in Africa. It’s because the eldest male child receives more resources in India. Researchers suggest that the younger daughters suffer the most in such a situation. That’s due to two reasons. The first is what experts call – “sibling rivalry effect”. It basically means that as the number of children in a family increases, competition for the resources increases among them too. So the child who’s born later will get a meager resource share. The second is what they call – “fertility-stopping behavior”.

It means that when a daughter is born into a family with only girls, her parents are likely to continue having children in their quest for a son. Due to these two reasons, the young daughters receive the least investment in Indian families. The researchers discovered religious differences regarding this situation when they studied the Hindu and Muslim families. They found that the first Muslim child is more likely to be stunted and hence more likely to be shorter than a Hindu first child.

That’s not surprising because an average Hindu family is better off than an average Muslim family. According to a 2013 government survey, the daily capita expenditure is higher for an average Hindu. What’s interesting is that when we compare the 2nd and the 3rd child, the story takes a different form. The height difference reduces in the 2nd child and the 3rd Hindu child is more likely to be stunted. The researchers say that this is probably because Muslims place less emphasis on having a son. On the other hand, the cultural practices of Hindu families give a lot of importance to the sons.

For example, parents typically live with and bequeath property to, their eldest son. Moreover, the post-death rituals are carried out by the eldest son. This argument became stronger when the researchers found that this situation is worse in India than in Pakistan and Bangladesh. If we talk about the solutions many of us might think that this problem would get solved as India develops and becomes richer. But it can’t be guaranteed. Between 1992 and 2005, India’s economic growth exceeded 6% per year, yet stunting declined by just 1.3% annually. Moreover, many conservative cultural practices are seen in rich families too. For example, a woman belonging to a rich family is less likely to work outside her house. We discussed this issue in a previous video.

And rich families are more likely to practice sex-selective abortion. This problem might not get solved with economic development. We need to change the societal norms, improve access to education and work opportunities for women. Moreover, we need to invest in the health sector too. One solution could be of increasing the salaries of rural healthcare workers or Asha workers. They’ve ensured the health and safety of women and children in rural India. Once we take such measures, we might be able to see a change in this graph.

Leave a Comment