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While there is an overall increase in average heights worldwide, the average height of the Indians is on the decline! A recent study conducted by New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has revealed such a sensational trend. According to the study, Indians have gotten shorter over the past decade and a half, and this trend needs urgent attention. Authors of the study stated: “In the context of an overall increase in average heights worldwide, the decline in average height of adults in India is alarming and demands an urgent enquiry. The argument for different standards of height for the Indian population as different genetic groups needs further scrutiny…

There is a steady decline not only in terms of Economic Standards, but also in terms of the physical height of the average Indians. The essence of this study, published recently in noted science journal PLoS One, is worrisome. The average physical height of people is directly proportional to the overall standard of living of the group they belong to. In other words, a reflection of the Socio-Economic Standard can be observed in the average height of a particular community.

An Indian Army officer checks the height of a potential recruit

The main objective of the study, titled ‘Trends of adult height in India from 1998 to 2015: Evidence from the National Family and Health Survey‘, by Krishna Kumar Choudhary, Sayan Das and Prachinkumar Ghodajkar of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health (JNU) was to find out the difference in the average height of Indians on the basis of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) data conducted by the Indian Ministry of Health in every 7-10 years. After analysing the NFHS data, Choudhary, Das and Ghodajkar have come up with sensational information. They have also divided that information again into criteria based on gender, socio-economic status, wealth, age and the like. “We believe, in the context of an overall increase in average heights worldwide, the decline in average height of adults in India is alarming and demands an urgent enquiry,” wrote the authors of the study paper.

The researchers found out that between NFHS-III (2005-06) and NFHS-IV (2015-16), Indians in the 15-50 age bracket, with the exception of women between the ages 26-50, experienced a decline in their average height. Women between 15-25 saw a decline in their mean height by 0.12cm, while women between 26-50 showed an improvement by 0.13cm. During the same period, men between 15-25 saw a decline of 1.10cm in their mean height and those between 26-50 years had a decline of 0.86cm.

The study further brought out a troubling mismatch between Economic Growth and Public Health. Between NFHS-II and NFHS-III, women between the ages of 15-25 saw their average height increase by 0.84cm. However, the average age of this group saw a decline between NFHS-III and NFHS-IV. This is notable since in NFHS-IV, as this group corresponds to a generation born right after India’s Economic Liberalisation (in 1991-92), characterised by high economic growth. Notably, disadvantaged groups have been especially impacted by this trend. For women in the ages 15-25 between NFHS-III and NFHS-IV, the average height of tribal women saw a decline of 0.42cm, while women from the poorest wealth fell by 0.63cm. This is significantly worse than the average decline for the entire age group (0.12cm). Now, the average height of Indian men is 5.8ft (177cm), and that of women is 5.3ft (162cm).

Researchers believe that in addition to Nutrition, Genes and Environmental Variables may also play an important role in determining the height of people. However, the Socio-Economic aspect is considered to be the most significant, as the NFHS study has revealed that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (or backward classes) are shorter than the persons belonging to the Middle and Upper Class. “Right now, it is difficult for us to say why it is happening. We have only revealed this fact. Now, we have to analyse the reason,” stressed Das.

According to Das, Nutrition and Genetic Changes may be the determining factors. Dr Parthapratim Pradhan, a Senior Professor of Anatomy and Principal of Bankura Sammilani Medical College, has agreed with Das’ view. “There is a direct correlation between Nutrition, Genes, Environment and height of different groups of people in a particular geographical region. The most important factors are most probably the Socio-Economic Status and Nutrition… Because, height is one of the basic indicators of Nutrition and Public Health,” insisted Dr Pradhan.

Meanwhile, Nutritionist Arijit Dey has explained how Nutrition determines Height of a person. “Nutrition depends mainly on Protein, Vitamin-D and Calcium. There is a shortage of these ingredients in case the diet is not proper. It affects the structure and growth of muscles and bones. Its direct reflection can be observed in height,” he said. According to Dey, if there is a regular shortage of all these nutrients in the diet of people living in a certain Socio-Economic Structure, then their next generations would have to suffer. If the situation remains the same, it will have an impact on the height of the next generation. Without denying the issue of Genes, the Nutritionist has emphasised on Nutrition.

Jammu & Kashmir Police personnel measure the height of a girl during a recruitment rally in January 2020

Hence, the experts have given more emphasis on the Socio-Economic Position, which has a direct bearing on a country’s Economic Growth. Height, in turn, is also linked to productivity. According to World Bank estimates, a 1% loss in adult height due to childhood stunting can lead to a 1.4% loss in economic productivity. In another study, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) has claimed that there is a wastage of 4% of India’s GDP on an average every year because of Malnutrition! The Chamber of Commerce has urged the Government of India to pay immediate attention to the nutrition of common Indians for the sake of GDP.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 Pandemic impacted public health severely in 2020 and 2021. As per a survey conducted by Jean Drèze and Anmol Somanchi, 53-77% of the respondents were consuming less food during the pandemic than the period before. Further, data from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy show a sharp decline in the consumption of nutrient and protein-rich food, across all income groups, during the pandemic.

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