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No, Mr Modi. 'Beautiful People' are not malnourished

As Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi prepares for the State Assembly elections later this year, which he will likely use to pitchfork himself as a candidate for Prime Ministership, he perhaps knows that his every move, his every word and his every deed is being subjected to clinical analysis.

Any misstep, any off-message rhetoric will doubtless be amplified by his political detractors - of whom he has more than a few - which is why he has been extraordinarily disciplined in his public pronouncements.

For the most part, having consolidated his hardcore Hindutva base, Modi has been focussing in recent times on reaching out to voters in the middle ground by emphasising his record of having advanced development in Gujarat.

Gujarat fares the worst in terms of overall hunger and nutrition among the industrial States. Reuters.

The State under Modi has built on the industrial base that it inherited from earlier times, and notched up impressive double-digit GDP growth  that is doubly remarkable given Gujarat's  high growth base (unlike the case with, say, Bihar, which has a low growth base).

Yet, there is one puzzle about Gujarat, an area of very uncharacteristic underperformance for a rich State, which has befuddled even the keenest analytical minds. This relates to Gujarat's low ranking, relative to even some vastly poorer States in India, on critical parameters that define human development. In particular, Gujarat fares the worst in terms of overall hunger and nutrition among the industrial States with a high per capita income.

On the face of it, this is counter-intuitive. Greater wealth should lead to better health and nourishment. But this theory fails in Gujarat's case. Even Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh gave voice to his sense of puzzlement that high levels of malnutrition persist even in pockets of high economic growth.

There is, of course, a history to this grim statistic, which predates Modi's term in office since 2001, which renders it somewhat difficult for Modi's detractors to use it as a political stick to beat him with. If anything, nutritional and general health standards are improving under his watch. Yet, the larger puzzle of why the statistics should be so bad in the first place has not been cracked.

Modi himself makes bold to answer that question, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal today. The interview  is part of a bio-profile of Modi, which frames  his  political ascendance  against the backdrop of a dysfunctional UPA government that has run the economy to the ground. (You can read the bio-profile, headlined 'In slowing India, a fast-growing star', here.)

It is the latest in a line of instances of foreign media entities  familiarising their readers about the man who, in their assessment, could, under certain circumstances, be India's  next Prime Minister.  It also shows up a Modi who is making the effort to seem accessible, and is tailoring his message to reflect the interests of the publication.

Thus, for instance, in the interview to Wall Street Journal, Modi hits all the right business-friendly notes. "Government," he says, "has no business to be in business." The tragedy, he adds, is that there's no liberalisation going on.

Modi's criticism is, of course, directed at the UPA government, which has been paralysed for more than three years now - and has turned the clock back on economic reforms in their entirety, and set the stage for an even more aggressive encroachment by the state into the domain of business. (But it could  well apply to the BJP too, given that the party hasn't embraced any recorms either.)

So far, so good. But when the journal seeks out Modi's response on Gujarat's chronic malnutrition problem, his answers seem uncharacteristically outlandish.

Mr. Modi attributes malnutrition problems partly to Gujaratis being largely vegetarian and partly to body-image issues among young women. "The middle class is more beauty-conscious than health-conscious—that is a challenge," he said. "If a mother tells her daughter to have milk, they'll have a fight—she'll tell her mother, 'I won't drink milk. I'll get fat.' "

This seems wrong on so many fronts.  And Modi's response effectively trivialises  a very serious health and nutritional issue that shames Gujarat in particular (and India in general, given that the pan-Indian picture is also far from glowing).

The problem of malnutrition in Gujarat (and elsewhere) that comes through in official data represents a rather more serious failing than can be dismissed as the result of young Gujarati girls being acutely conscious of their curves.

The third National Family Health Survey, the latest available, shows that in Gujarat, as many as 41.4 percent of children under three years of age  were underweight. And about half of Gujarati children under five were stunted. Children in those  age groups may be a little too young to be "beauty-conscious" in the manner that Modi suggests. In fact, the statistics for Gujarat on this count are marginally worse than the national average, which is doubly astonishing considering that Gujarat is one of the higher-income States.

Likewise, some 55.3 percent of women in the 15-45 age group were anaemic in Gujarat, which is about the same for women across India.

Gujarat also comes across as faring worse than the national average, and even some of the poorer States, on some other indices of health and nutrition,

As the Human Development Report of 2011 noted, the hunger status measured by the Hunger Index for some industrial states and states with high per capita income, including Gujarat, is worse than some poor states. "This suggests that economic prosperity alone cannot reduce hunger. Hence, there is a need for specific target-oriented policies to improve the hunger and malnutrition situation. Inclusive economic growth and targeted strategies to ensure food sufficiency, reduce child mortality, and improve child nutrition are urgent priorities."

Malnutrition, according to the report, reflects an imbalance of both macro- and micro-nutrients that may be due to inappropriate intake  and/or inefficient biological utilization. Poor feeding practices during infancy and early childhood, resulting in malnutrition, could contribute to impaired cognitive and social development,  poor school performance, and reduced productivity in  later life.

Malnutrition, it added, is a major threat to social and economic development as it is among the most serious obstacles to attaining and maintaining the health of this important age group.

For all its record of industrial advancement and relative prosperity, Gujarat is seriously underperforming on the health and nutrition front, and the larger index of  human development. On these counts, it comes across as faring worse than a Jharkhand or an Uttar Pradesh, which have much lower per-capita income. And although the roots of the health and nutrition crisis in Gujarat date back to a time well before Modi's term in offfice, the fact that such inequities persist under more than a decade of his watch may prove to his Achilles heel, which his political opponents will doubtless seek to exploit.

For all his discipline in communicating the developmental message that he wants to put out, Modi may have done himself a disservice in suggesting that Gujarat's sub-par performance on the health and nutrition front is accounted for by anorexic girls who are beauty-conscious in the extreme.  Such pronouncements only leave him open to the charge that he is trivialising what is at its core a life-and-death issue for many Gujarati children.