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The Big Investment Opportunity India Is Missing Out On

09/09/2015 8:14 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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An Indian schoolgirl feeds her younger sister during their mid-day meal at a government primary school in the outskirts of Hyderabad on June 13, 2011, on the opening day of the new academic year. The government of India's Andhra Pradesh state has introduced English as a second language from Class 1 onwards for the 2011-2012 academic year. India's National Knowledge Commission has admitted that no more than one percent of country's population uses English as a second language. AFP PHOTO/Noah SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

From food delivery companies to e-commerce platforms, India's startups have been attracting large investments in recent months. Hoping to fund the next Facebook, investors have been flocking to these companies in the hope of high returns, pouring a total of USD5 billion in investment funding, triple of the previous year.

While speculations are rife about the returns that can be made on these investments, a recent Cornell study has identified another sector where the returns to investments for every USD1 spent in India can be USD134. Unfortunately, this sector isn't tracking its spending regularly; the most recent data on its performance was recently released a decade after the previous round of data collection and this was only after sustained pressure from the media.

The sector in this case is nutrition and the performance data relates to India's track record in improving it. With 1-7 September observed as National Nutrition Week, it is time we gave some serious thought to making some changes.

This recent data, which has been collected five years later than expected, is already being debated for its accuracy as it diverges with the government's own data from other sources. For example, the Rapid Survey on Children (RSoC) results released this year by the Ministry of Women and Child Development reported that 41.5% of children aged below five years in Madhya Pradesh were undernourished (low height-for- age) while the recent clinical, anthropometric and biochemical (CAB) survey 2014 by the Registrar General of India reported that this figure was 51.5%.

Given all the economic benefits that improving nutrition offers, India can avail tremendous returns from boosting the performance of its nutrition-related investments.

The good news is that tracking this performance doesn't have to be difficult.

It is surprising that in this age of India's booming technology startups, the government still partly relies on paper questionnaires to collect data. Surveyors for the National Family Health Survey 2014-2015 have been provided with mini-notebook computers to conduct interviews but the manual for interviewers also includes instructions for paper questionnaires. To put this in perspective, the survey for the woman of the household alone has 93 pages and 1140 questions! Therefore, considerable time and taxpayer money is spent on converting information from a paper survey into a digital format. No wonder then, that collecting this data once every five years is considered a reasonable frequency.

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Further, surveys can go beyond measuring nutritional status to tracking how the government programmes affect nutritional status. For example, emphasis has been laid over the past year on providing hand washing stations in schools to improve hygiene. However, as Ashoka's recent survey of 14 rural schools in Maharashtra (13 government-aided and 1 private) showed, setting up these facilities doesn't automatically imply that they will be maintained. Despite the existence of handwashing stations, 51% of the students reported that soap was not used in their schools.

Investing in nutrition isn't only important for our current generation. A recent study found that even a "normal" diet can cause deficiencies and other food-related diseases in the present population if their ancestors were undernourished for several generations.

Peter Drucker once said, "What gets measured gets managed" and as long as our nutrition programs treat measurement as an afterthought, India is losing out on a big investment opportunity.

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