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Facts and Implications

Stunting among Children

Indian children are very short, on average, compared with children living in other countries. Because height reflects early life health and net nutrition, and because good early life health also helps brains to grow and capabilities to develop, widespread growth faltering is a human development disaster. Panagariya acknowledges these facts, but argues that Indian children are particularly short because they are genetically programmed to be so. In consequence, the higher prevalence of stunting among Indian children than among children in much poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from using inappropriate common standards, and is not in itself a concern. However, Panagariya does little more than assert this conclusion, disregarding the long-held general understanding among nutritionists and economists, as well as important facts and theories in the literature.

Panagariya discusses a number of puzzling facts about child and adult anthropometrics. Most, although not all, of these have been known for a long time. Scholars who have written about these puzzles have indeed noted that some of the facts have no ready explanation, for example, that Indians have higher average incomes and lower infant mortality rates than most of Africa, but that Africans are taller. What Panagariya claims to contribute is the answer to these puzzles: that they can all be explained by “genetics”. All of his argument about the role of genetics is by residual: if we cannot think of anything else, it must be genetics. There is no direct evidence on genetics anywhere in the paper. Genetics might be the answer, or part of it, but any argument by residual is obviously sensitive to having missed something, or to having overlooked some evidence.

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