In recent years, one of the most significant critiques of India’s economic growth model is that it has failed to encourage social development in its wake. Despite high levels of growth and economic reforms, domestic observers as well as international organizations such as the World Health Organization have criticized India’s high rates of child malnutrition. Indeed, India has been compared unfavorably to most sub-Saharan African countries on this indicator, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh calling the problem a “national shame.”

Renowned economist Arvind Panagariya joined Carnegie’s Milan Vaishnav for a conversation challenging the accuracy of this grim portrait of malnutrition in India. Drawing on research conducted for his new paper “The Myth of Child Malnutrition in India,” Panagariya discussed whether India truly has a reason to be ashamed of its progress in this area.

  • Dominant Narrative: Panagariya began by noting that widely accepted estimates put India’s malnutrition rate at nearly 50 percent of children under age five.

  • Need for Scrutiny: Panagariya presented evidence that, if the 50 percent figure were true, then India would be worse than every Sub-Saharan African country in malnutrition, but better off than nearly all of them in child mortality rates. For this reason, he suggested that the 50 percent number was highly counterintuitive and needed more careful scrutiny.

  • Challenging Assumptions: In explaining the discrepancy, Panagariya pointed to the flawed method of measuring malnutrition, which is premised on the assumption that all height and weight differences between children of the same age are due to nutrition, despite scholarly evidence that genetic and geographical factors may also be at work. Were the numbers calculated according to a more appropriate standard, Panagariya claims, India would fare much better on the issue of malnutrition.

  • Shifting Ground: Given the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of India’s economic reforms, Panagariya argues that the “myth of malnutrition” is another instance of “shifting ground” underneath the reforms’ opponents. He argued that the malnutrition figures are essentially the last truly feeble social development indicators left for those opponents to cite, and that if those turn out to be exaggerated then there will be little remaining reason to oppose economic reform on social welfare grounds.