India: Investing in a Child’s Early Years for a Stronger Economy

June 29, 2016

Over the next two decades, India will have one of the youngest and largest working age populations in the world. On one hand, this is promising news. But for India to capitalize fully on this demographic dividend and participate productively in the global economy, it is critical for the country to invest in its citizens’ human and cognitive development.

The science is convincing - human development starts in a child’s earliest years, in the first 1000 days of life. Beginning with a woman’s pregnancy, and following through to the first two years of a child’s life, appropriate nutrition, early stimulation and learning, and a safe environment, are crucial for a child’s overall development.  Sadly, less than 2 percent of India’s children have these three basic requirements in sufficient measure in their most critical years - the right food, proper health care, early learning opportunities, and clean water and sanitation. The absence of these essential requirements can not only have an irreversible impact on the child’s development, but also undermine the country’s future economic productivity. Improving nutrition in the early years can raise adult wages by 5-50 percent, and reducing stunting can increase GDP by 4-11 percent.

Even though the magnitude of India’s nutrition challenge is enormous, the country has made good progress over the past decade in tackling this endemic issue. The recently launched Global Nutrition Report 2016 - the first-ever comprehensive narrative on global and country-level nutrition— classifies India among the countries closest to moving on track for tackling stunting under age five. Even so, the challenge remains high, especially in India’s poorest states.

“Prime Minister Modi’s goal of making India the human resources capital of the world will succeed only if malnutrition is addressed immediately and ambitiously. India has made significant progress over the past few years in reducing the levels of malnutrition in the country, which unfortunately still remain high,” said World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim.

Given the complex nature of the challenge, a multi-sectoral approach is necessary. India has therefore made concerted efforts to expand and strengthen its national flagship programs on nutrition, early learning, and health through the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS) and the National Health Mission (NHM).

The ICDS program, delivered through a network of 1.3 million village nutrition centers (aanganwadi centers) and managed by a community worker, covers an estimated 102 million children up to 6 years of age, as well as pregnant and lactating women. However, many of these centers focus on pre-school age children, thus missing the crucial first 1000 day window.

World Bank Support

Recognizing the multi-sectoral determinants of malnutrition, the World Bank is supporting the government’s investments in nutrition, sanitation, and education. It is providing technical assistance to better link the aanganwadi centers with primary schools nearby.  Recent research has suggested that adding two years of pre-school education can generate high returns to lifetime incomes in India.

The government’s ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) – or Clean India initiative - can also be a game-changer, because sanitation is as essential as nuitrition to a child’s health. Along with complementary nutrition interventions, the Swachh Bharat Mission- Gramin (SBM-G), the rural component of the Clean India Mission, seeks to address the high occurrence of stunting among India’s children.

The World Bank is supporting the SBM-G with $ 1.5 billion in financing over 2016-2020. The project will finance innovative pilots in 162 high malnutrition districts across eight states - Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.  

The Bank is also supporting the empowerment of women and helping promote women’s livelihoods.  A key objective of the new generation of the livelihood projects in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is to improve household nutrition by adopting a multi-sectoral approach and leveraging institutional platforms of the poor, namely the Self Help Groups. Over the next 5 years, it is expected that nearly 1.5 million households will have improved nutrition outcomes as a result of these programs.  This approach will also be scaled up to other states through the National Rural Livelihoods Project in the next few years.

Smart investments like these in India’s youngest children, upon whom the future of the country rests, are crucial as India seeks to transform itself into the human resource capital of the world.