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Why culture and context matters in malnutrition debate in India

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Does malnutrition make a buzzy talking point in India’s public discourse? The short answer is “no”, unless there are deaths. There is a great deal of squeamishness in accepting that India, an aspiring superpower, has one-third of the world’s stunted children, and a malnutrition crisis with unacceptable human consequences.

Last week, malnutrition was back in the news with the findings of the high-level team of specialists constituted by the Centre to investigate the surge in acute encephalitis syndrome (AES) cases in Bihar this year. More than 100 children had died. Dr Arun Singh, who led the Central team, says the affected districts had temperatures of over 40 degrees for several days at a stretch, that the children played outdoors in high heat, and that the combination of extreme heat, exhaustion and micro-nutritional deficiency could have been lethal.

He has called for “more research on this triad”.

Experts rarely agree with each other and this case will be no exception. But the point to note is that no matter which expert analysis of the tragedy you look at, the common thread is recognition of the malnourished condition of the victims.

Malnourishment is a powerful risk multiplier. Malnourished children from impoverished backgrounds, such as the ones who fell prey to AES in Bihar, are more vulnerable to heat, the litchi toxin and everything else being held responsible.

This is the stark reality.

It is also important to recognise that malnutrition is not solely about poverty. It is also about culture and context. Which brings me to interesting discussions that took place early September at the Planetary Health annual meeting at Stanford University in the United States,........

© The Asian Age