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Nutrition for children: High returns on investing early in the lifecycle

Posted:  Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Although India has made progress in reducing child mortality, there is much room for improvement when tackling early life conditions that influence long-term health and well-being and therefore economic outcomes. A vast body of evidence supports the concept that early childhood (starting from conception to 2 years of life) is a critical period for cognitive and non-cognitive skill development and is highly sensitive to environmental conditions.

Suboptimal growth and development during the early years of life irreversibly affects the physical growth, immunity, education, lifetime skill formation and economic productivity of an individual, which proves to be an expensive affair. Additionally in developing countries, malnutrition is exacerbated through the viscous cycle of malnutrition and infection and the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.

The long-term implications of such health shocks depend on the availability and effectiveness of alleviation strategies adopted by households. For example, children from socio-economically vulnerable families have poor nutritional outcomes as household assets and access to credit are limited.

Analysis of the cost-benefit ratios reveals that the returns on investing early in the lifecycle are high at the individual and community level, but the follow-up remediation of inadequate early investment is difficult and expensive. In terms of policy design, it is important to note that there is no equity-efficiency tradeoff for early childhood investment.

A way forward is to ensure household food security and protection of the nutritional outcomes of children through effective social protection mechanisms. In this context, research has also justified interventions like weather insurance and social insurance schemes or policies ensuring food security for safeguarding infants from the health implications of temporary environmental, civil and economic shocks.

There is a need to identify programmes that protect against early childhood vulnerability and thus promote sustainable development. The government is instead proceeding in the opposite direction by reducing outlays for the midday meal scheme and so on. We must work by the thought that investing in disadvantaged young children promotes both equity and productivity.

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