Nidhiya Menon Addresses the Effects of Water Quality on Infant Health in India

On Thursday, April 5, Nidhiya Menon, Associate Professor of Economics at Brandeis University, came to Williams’s Center for Development Economics (CDE) to discuss her most recent research about the effects of water pollution on infant health in India. Menon had worked on the project with former CDE professor Susan Brainerd.

Menon began the talk with a brief review of Indian agricultural history of the last 100 years. One of India’s first initiatives as a sovereign state after its 1947 independence from British rule was to increase food security; the country had emerged from one of its devastating famines in 1943 and was determined to end the regular cycles of mass starvation which had characterized the era of British colonization. To accomplish this goal, the Indian government led its own Green Revolution, which encouraged the use of high-yielding variety seeds (HYVs), double cropping (planting two crops of seeds in a year in one plot of land), pesticides, and nitrogenous fertilizer. In the years following the initiative, the amount of nitrogenous fertilizer per hectare of land increased 900%.

This agricultural revolution had hugely positive effects in ridding India of malnourishment and famines; today, India even exports surplus food. However, the revolution has encouraged the overuse of nitrogenous fertilizers and other chemicals, and by 1980, consumption of nitrogen in India was double that in China, a similar developing country, and the United States.

Menon’s project connected this overuse of chemicals to water pollution and to the huge rates of “stunting” (stunted growth), “wasting” (low birth weights) and infant mortality in rural areas of the country. These effects were particularly evident in children conceived during the months of peak rates of agrichemicals present in water due to the sowing season of the local grain. In the north, for example, the presence of these fertilizer chemicals peaks in January and February, when Indian farmers plant wheat, the dominant grain of the area. Children conceived during this month in this region are thus especially susceptible to stunting and wasting.

Women, Menon explained, make up 50-60 % of India’s labor force, and are therefore particularly exposed to agrichemicals in local water supplies and in agricultural fields. In addition, a high percentage of the women who participated in the study drew most of their water from unclean sources such as ground water. Their children are thus exposed to agrichemicals even while in the womb, and are most vulnerable during the month of conception. The effects of these chemicals can continue past the age of five, when many rural Indian children still exhibit stunted growth, and certain effects such as coronary heart disease can even be passed on to future generations. Today’s overuse of agrichemicals, then, will affect future children even if, in future years, the use of agrichemicals is reduced.

The study concluded, Menon said, that a 10% increase in the presence of agrichemicals during the month of conception can lead to a rise in infant mortality by 11%, and in neo-natal mortality by as much as 15%.