malnutrition and low levels of literacy in India

We know that the poor are in the majority in India and that they actively participate in elections.  Given that India is a democracy, why are there still such high levels of malnutrition and low levels of literacy?

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. It is an evolving concept which entails not only the grasping abilities of printed text but also the abilities to adapt visual entities and technological awareness as well. It happens to be a multidimensional concept which keeps on adding new parameters to it with respect to the developments that are taking place in a globalized world.

On the other hand, malnutrition is the lack of proper nutrition, caused by not having enough to eat, not eating enough of the right things, or being unable to use the food that one does eat. Malnutrition manifests in the form of stunting, wasting, micronutrient deficiencies and over­weight/obesity. Micronutrient malnutrition acts as a major impediment to socioeconomic development contributing to a vicious circle of underdevelopment, to the detriment of already underprivileged groups.

According to the recently released National Family Health Survey, NFHS-3, carried out in 2005-06, 46 per cent of India’s children under the age of three are underweight. The corresponding levels of child malnutrition are much lower in most other countries — 28 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa and eight per cent in China. Scientific evidence suggests that compared with the risks well-nourished child faces, the risk of death from common childhood diseases is doubled for a mildly malnourished child, tripled for a moderately malnourished child, and may be even as high as eight times for a severely malnourished child.

With one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world, India has won notoriety as one of the nutritional basket cases of the world over the past few years. Although India has witnessed significant progress in its battle against child malnutrition over the past decade, the progress has been quite uneven, and child malnutrition rates still remain high in many parts of the country, data from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) shows.

The survey of over 6 lakh households conducted in 2015-16 shows that over the past decade, the proportion of underweight children fell nearly 7 percentage points to 36%, while the proportion of stunted children (those with low height-for-age, a measure of chronic undernourishment) declined nearly 10 percentage points to 38%. Despite the progress, these rates are still higher than those of many poorer countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And in some of the worst affected districts such as Purulia in West Bengal and Nandurbar in Maharashtra, every second child is undernourished.

Such high level of child malnutrition imposes a huge economic cost. Malnutrition accounted for losses worth at least 8% of global gross domestic product (GDP) in the 20th century because of “direct productivity losses, losses via poorer cognition, and losses via reduced schooling,” according to medical journal The Lancet, which published a special issue on the topic in 2013. The losses are higher for high-burden countries such as India.

As in the case of adult undernutrition rates, districts with the highest levels of undernutrition seem to be clustered largely in the central parts of the country. The bottom quartile of districts ranked according to child malnutrition rates includes not just districts from the most deprived tribal belts of central and eastern India but also some of the more urbanized districts of the country such as Udaipur in Rajasthan, Aurangabad in Maharashtra, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Patna in Bihar, and Ranchi in Jharkhand. However, overall urban child malnutrition rates are lower than that of rural India.


The causes of malnutrition in India can be said to be clearly explained below:

Physio-graphical Causes: Due to geographical diversity and regional imbalance in terms of resources, certain regions in the country lack availability of certain nutrients or food items.

Historical Causes: The long British rule of exploitation has rendered certain sections of the population and certain regions highly deprived. This translates into lack of nutrition among other outcomes.

Socio-Economic Causes: Poverty and inadequate coverage of governmental programs hinder inclusion of various sections of the demography. On the other hand, with increasing level of disposable income among the urban population, there is increasing consumption of junk food and packaged food which is leading to malnutrition in urban areas as well.

Governance and Policy Failures: Ineffective implementation of policies and failed targets of the five-year plans and delayed focus on malnutrition has caused significant harm to the Indian population’s nutritional needs.

Cultural and Gender Causes: Traditional family’s economic costs incurred with respect to gender roles and cultural links are also responsible for these micronutrient deficiencies.

Other Causes: The lack of knowledge of appropriate dietary practices and high incidence of infectious diseases are other key factors apart from lack of access to a variety of foods.


On the other hand, Illiteracy in India is a problem which has complex dimensions attached to it. Illiteracy in India is more or less concerned with different forms of disparities that exist in the country. There are gender imbalances, income imbalances, state imbalances, caste imbalances, technological barriers which shape the literacy rates that exist in the country. India possesses the largest illiterate population. Literacy rates stood at 82.14 percent for men in 2011 and 65.46 percent for women. This low female literacy is also responsible for the dependency of women on men for activities which require them to read and write. Thus, this all leads to the formation of a vicious circle.

Again, it is no new concept that the rich households will have better access to educational facilities as compared to the poor households. Poor households due to the lack of skills and knowledge involve themselves with unskilled labor in order to save bread for the family. Thus, this reduces the focus from achieving education as the main focus deviates to earning income so as to be able to survive in the society. States that spend more on education seem to have higher literacy rates as to the states which do not invest heavily in education. Kerala is a case in point. The state spends 685 dollars per pupil which also explains its educational levels.

One of the primary reasons for dismal literacy rates is inadequate school facilities. The teaching staff that is employed across the government-run schools is inefficient and unqualified. Another reason which leads to the maximum dropouts among the children is the lack of proper sanitation. A study has stated that 59 percent of the schools do not have drinking water facilities. There is a shortage of teachers as well.

Other major causes of illiteracy levels in India include, Parents with little schooling, Lack of books at home and lack of stimulation as to the importance of reading, doing badly at or dropping out of school—many have not completed high school, Difficult living conditions, including poverty; Learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dysorthography, etc.