Indians are among the shortest people in the world on average. Despite impressive rates of economic growth in India over the past decade or two, India remains one of the worst performing countries worldwide in terms of height, among both children and adults. This is unusual because data and research has shown that over time people become progressively taller as living standards improve. There has, however, been an increase in average height in India itself as the standards of living have increased. Between 1914 and 2014, the average height of Indian men increased by about 3cm to become 165 cm, while women grew taller by about 5cm to become 153 cm. Also, it seems that children in India today are much taller than their parents were at their age, according to studies conducted into the matter. But why are Indians still shorter than the global average while Most countries have shown an increase in height over the past century or so?
Genes contribute to only a small portion of a person’s height, and so most scholars around the world have disregarded the hypothesis that genetic factors are of prime importance in explaining the small stature among Indians relative to international standards. Instead, it has been identified that environmental factors such as the mother’s health, infant and child nutrition, sanitation and environmental pollution are the major reasons for smaller heights in India. Nutrition here not only implies that there is malnutrition in the country, but also the fact that India has a very large vegetarian population. This means that many people are not gaining nutrition from a very good source: meat. Protein obtained through meat is great for growing height. Though vegetarians can get protein from dal or soybean, they are not nearly as good sources of protein, and the best quality of protein comes from animal sources. Apart from this, the low status of women in Indian society, high rates of gastro-intestinal infections spread by the widespread practice of open defecation (especially in rural areas), and certain eating habits are said to contribute to height.
Furthermore, research has shown that forward caste men are the tallest in India, and scheduled caste and scheduled tribe men are the shortest. This is proof of the fact that better living conditions and nutrition helps in height growth. Thus, there is decreased importance of genetic factors in explaining the disappointing growth performance of Indians, and it is more of the socioeconomic and environmental factors prevailing in India. This is evidenced by the fact that ethnic Indian adults in England are much taller than in India, because of their standard of living and environment.
Today in India, children are definitely much healthier and better-fed than they used to be, and adults are gradually getting taller than their previous generation. However, Indians are still much shorter than Americans or Europeans, and it is estimated that the height difference will take around 250 years to eliminate at the British growth rate. And the reason behind all this is not Indian genetics, but rather things like malnutrition and poverty in the country. Today, nearly 40 percent of Indian kids today are short enough to be classed as stunted by international standards. Furthermore, it is mostly Indian men that we see gradually growing in height to meet the international average, while women are growing taller at less than a third of the rate at which Indian men are growing taller. This matches the pattern of discrimination that we often see in India, which is a mostly patriarchal country. Hence, we will only be able to increase in average height if we are able to raise the standard of living for everyone in the country and aim for equitable treatment of all.