Amid global spurt, average height of Indians declined over 10 years

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In the context of an increase in average heights worldwide, there was, alarmingly, a decline in the average height of adult men and women in India in the decade from 2005-06 to 2015-16 after a significant increase from 1998-99. Women from the poorest sections showed the steepest decline as did tribal women.
The same period saw the average height of women in the wealthier sections improve significantly, showing how closely average height is linked to nutrition and other social and environmental factors. This was revealed in a study published in the open access science journal, PLOS One, that compared the average height of adult women and men from the national family health surveys (NFHS) done in 1998-99, 2005-06 and 2015-16.

The study by JNU’s Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health showed that between 1998-99 and 2005-06, there was improvement in the average height of women in both the age groups analysed irrespective of caste, religion and state, except in Meghalaya, which saw a decline.
For the decade to 2015-16, the 26-50 year age group, unlike the 15-25 group, saw women’s average height improve marginally except among Scheduled Tribes and among the poorest.
“Interestingly, women in the age group of 15-25 years in NFHS-4 (2015-16), whose height declined compared to the same age group of women from NFHS-3 (2005-06), come from the post-90s birth cohorts, the period when neoliberal policies gained momentum in India,” noted the study.
“Researchers analysed NFHS-3 data to show that an average five-year-old ST girl is 2cm shorter than an average general caste girl. They further found the differences in socio-economic status to be responsible for the entire gap in height between ST and general caste children,” stated the study. However, among men, the greatest decline in height was seen among tribal men, the general category and, surprisingly, among the richest section, even as there was a general decline in the average height of men between 2005-06 and 2015-16.
“Since this is a trend, it cannot be explained away by genetic factors. The same sub-populations are being studied and the secular trends are found to be negative. That is very significant. It should also be seen in light of the overall stagnation in nutritional indicators seen in NFHS-5 done in 2019-20. It is very likely that it reflects not only food insecurity but an overall problem with equitable socio-economic development, or rather a failure to correct historical marginalisation compounded by an actual deterioration in development status brought about by economic factors as well as perhaps newer social marginalisations,” said Dr Vandana Prasad of the organisation Public Health Resource Network, which works on nutrition and public health issues.

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