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.