Japanese people have far exceeded height of Bangladeshis within a century when the Far Eastern men and women became taller by six inches on an average. Data suggest an average Japanese is 5 feet 7 inches tall compared to a Bangladeshi's height, below 5 feet 2 inches.
The UNICEF says, 49 per cent of Bangladesh children below five years of age from the poorest 20 per cent households are stunted. Even 20 per cent of such infants from 20 per cent richest segment are shorter than they are supposed to be, adds the UNICEF's 'The State of the World's Children 2019' report. Of the country's close to 5.0 million children of that age group, some 100,000 are found to be obese as well.
A 2016 report "Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey 2014", prepared by the 'National Institute of Population Research and Training' and the USAID, said that 36 per cent children under five years were stunted and 12 per cent severely stunted.
In slums 'with no access to safe water, basic toilets or adequate hygiene', "children must often fend for themselves and are at greater risk of malnutrition, child labour, child marriage and exposure to pollution, violence and abuse," the UNICEF report has observed. It quotes a Dhaka slum dweller, Ruma, as saying that electricity supply is irregular, and rodents and insects in their single room "make our lives an absolute misery."
The UN body has reported a rise in communicable and non-communicable diseases that are 'linked to changing climate conditions and unplanned urbanisation' and that threaten children and their families.
The stunting is generally an outcome of malnutrition as it affects the poor most, even if they live in cities. Such a situation contrasts reports of food autarky, a great achievement by the Bangladesh farmers who more than tripled food production since independence.
When children of rich families face stunting, it means they may not have consumed healthy diets or have lack of health awareness. In any case, they suffer and such health situation does not bode well for aspirations of the middle-income country status.
Bangladesh is one of the 25 countries with shortest people, according to the latest Guinness World Records. Placed at the 9th with an average height of 5 feet and 1.92 inches, Bangladesh is just above countries like the Philippines at 5th with average height of 5 feet and 1.57 inches, Madagascar at 3rd with 5 feet and 1.56 inches, Laos at 2nd with 5 feet and 1.37 inches and Timor-Leste at the bottom with an average height of 5 feet and 1.28 inches.
A taller new generation may prove good health supported by economic well-being of the previous one. Children who are brought up on better nutritional diet are expected to be more intelligent and active. If Bangladeshi children's stunting is indicative of severe, large-scale malnutrition, this very group is unlikely to perform better in learning, working or in games and sports.
Winner of Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Amartya Sen said in Dhaka a few years ago that the workers of China were more productive than the Indians due to superior health of the Chinese. The average height of the Chinese has crossed the Japanese during China's economic growth.
The recent increase in life expectancy has created a positive vibe among the Bangladeshis but stunting of children raises questions about food quality, nutritional policies and health system. For taking remedial measures, we first need to know how and why this has happened despite per capita income growth over the years.