India has one of the world’s fastest growing economies, yet remains burdened by seriously high rates of malnutrition. A new research study published in the September edition of American Economic Review illustrates how these conditions are manifest in the height of the nation’s children, nearly 40 percent of whom are considered ‘stunted,’ an even higher rate than many poor nations in Africa.

The article co-authored by two economists–Associate Professor Seema Jayachandran of Northwestern University and Professor Rohini Pande of Harvard Kennedy School—examines the role that gendered parental preferences play in child stunting in India, a phenomenon which prior research has demonstrated casts a long shadow over an individual's life: on average, people who are shorter as children are less healthy, have lower cognitive ability, and earn less as adults.

Photo by Ishan Tankha

Through an examination of records for more than 168,000 children in India and 25 African countries, the authors find that firstborn boys in India are taller than their African counterparts. The height disadvantage among Indian children starts with the second child and increases sharply with birth order, attributable the authors argue, to parents allocating resources to the firstborn son.

“Eldest son preference in India (encompassing both a desire to have at least one son and for the son to be healthy) influences parents' fertility decisions and how they allocate resources across children, leading to the steep birth order gradient in height,” they write. “Eldest son preference can be traced to the patrilocal and patrilineal Hindu kinship system: aging parents typically live with, and bequeath property to, their eldest son…Further, Hindu religious texts emphasize post-death rituals which can only be conducted by a male heir.”

Jayachandran and Pande also find that within India, the connection between birth order and child stunting is stronger in regions and for religions where first-son preferences are strongest. Data on height for girls and boys at different birth orders supports their theory – for instance, a son who is the second child is taller in India than in Africa only if his older sibling is a girl. They also find that, relative to Africa and to prenatal inputs, girls in India receive fewer postnatal resources if their family does not yet have a son.

While child stunting rates in India have been falling in recent decades, they remain extraordinarily high for a country as rich as India is today.

“For a country that looks forward to cashing in on its demographic dividend—meaning, the economic growth made possible by having a large working-age population compared to retirees—the fact that children are stunted may hugely undercut India’s growth potential. Stunting, we know, is strongly associated worse health and labor market outcomes,” said Pande.

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