India’s undernutrition debates and the power of political narratives

12 April 2017

Throughout 2016, the debate on India's undernutrition crisis raged in the media and public debate as a number of reports were published which highlighted its child stunting crisis (Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, WaterAid, Global Hunger Index). Why was this middle-income country with a healthy economic growth still presenting some of the worst child stunting statistics in the world?

A child’s upper arm is measured at an Anganwadi centre in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district. This is a quick and simple way to check if a child is severely underweight as they have a 10-30% chance of death without treatment. Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development (CC BY 2.0)

In recent research I have gone on to explore the power of such policy narratives on nutrition in India.

Debates around child stunting (a marker of chronically poor nutritional status) in India have been a battleground of narratives attributing it to either a major failing to spread the proceeds of economic growth to essential health and social services, or a conspiracy of international bodies and left-leaning analysts applying global standards inappropriately to India's children.

That these debates have included advisors to Prime Ministers, eminent economists and activists, reveals how important these narratives have been in the Indian political context.

Recognising the power of the political narrative

Politicians and the media often discuss refashioning, shaping and seizing the political narrative.

But what does this mean in reality?

While an effective narrative, one that resonates within the media or with public and voters is the mark of a successful contemporary politician, the inverse is also true;  hence the current crisis in many countries amongst left-liberals failing to define an effective narrative on globalisation to counter the populist right.

As I argue in my paper, the stories we tell about policy problems, choices and outcomes are a powerful weapon in the arsenal of political power. Well wielded, they can be responsible for privileging and closing off various understandings of policy and political options, or providing interpretations or re-interpretations of historical, political and economic trajectories and events. These become critical in shaping the accepted public discourse of the day.

Deeper understanding can draw on a body of work known as narrative policy analysis (see Roe or Jones and McBeth). Such analysis might consider the narrative's own internal logic and consistency, and its impact both internally and externally in framing a particular policy issue and setting the boundaries of public, political and media discussion of a topic.

Without complicating the analytical toolbox too much, this analysis can be very useful in understanding the role of narrative in political strategy and policy processes at a country or global level.

Going deeper, such analysis might take apart some of the key structural elements of narratives that we are all familiar with – characters, heroes, villains, plots and morals. But it also adds a nuanced understanding of rhetorical devices that are designed to draw the reader in, resonate with accepted though or present particular policy options as having maximal winners and few losers.

Child stunting as the ‘narrative’ battleground in India

Beyond getting involved in the technical debates, understanding how such opposing narratives come about and how they work is essential for understanding not only the policy landscape on nutrition over the past decade in India, but also the wider narratives used to shape broader trajectories of economic growth and policy that are fundamental to future political choices.

In these narratives, Indian children become characters in a plot encompassing the broader destiny of the nation in comparison to its neighbours. Competing narrators become protagonists themselves, cast as heroes or villains in alternatively using or ignoring child stunting to obscure the benefits of, or unduly promote, liberalisation in India's economy.

Readers and audiences of one set of narratives are asked to consider whether such high levels of undernutrition are not incongruent with the story of India's economic growth more generally and therefore isn't it odd that India is fareing worse than sub-Saharan Africa: there must be some other explanation?

Alternatively the audience is asked to consider the superior health and nutrition statistics of India's neighbours such as Bangladesh or China and question whether the type of growth that India has experienced can be broad and well-distributed, if so many stunted children remain.

Narratives matter in public policy and development – taking some time to appreciate how they work can greatly enhance our understanding of the policy processes that shape the real world outcomes that we care about; make implicit assumptions explicit.

By manifesting the power of the narrative we can lend further transparency to the way in which public perceptions are shaped by powerful competing interests – if we want to better understand their agendas, we can simply look to the stories they tell.

Image: A child's upper arm is measured at an Anganwadi centre in Madhya Pradesh's Dhar district. This is a quick and simple way to check if a child is severely underweight as they have a 10-30% chance of death without treatment. Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

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