Congress president Rahul Gandhi and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi during the manifesto release | Shahbaz Khan/PTI
Interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi with son Rahul Gandhi | PTI file photo
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As India votes in the Lok Sabha elections, parliamentary constituencies that voted the same parliamentarian for repeat terms, or for the kin of the serving legislators, are falling behind on key nutrition indicators.

Several such constituencies across party lines fell below the 30th percentile among the country’s 543 parliamentary constituencies on indicators targeted by the Narendra Modi government’s National Nutrition Mission.

This analysis is based on a Harvard University-led study that used district-level data from India’s National Family Health Survey of 2016  to rank parliamentary constituencies by five undernutrition indicators prioritised in India’s National Nutrition Mission (NNM): stunting, underweight, wasting, low birth weight, and anaemia.

While 30 percentile-mark (like any other cut-off) could be argued as an arbitrary threshold for these indicators, it does illustrate the poor performance of these parliamentary constituencies when compared with others.

Also read: UK study conducted in India finds children born into poverty have weaker brain activity

Even high-profile constituencies like Amethi, Pilibhit and Kannauj perform poorly on these nutrition indicators. Yet, that hasn’t stopped the legislators from seeking re-election this time.

More than half the deaths of below-five children in India can be attributed to undernutrition. India is also home to 30 per cent of the world’s stunted children, and 50 per cent of the wasted ones (low weight for height).

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How family strongholds fare?

Relatives of legislators include sons, daughters, wives, grandparents and first cousins of serving lawmakers. Amethi, the constituency represented by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi from 1981 to 1991 and now by his son and Congress president Rahul Gandhi since the last three terms, falls below the 30 percentile-mark in stunting, underweight, anaemia categories.

Rae Bareli, former UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s bastion since 1999, is struggling in the ‘underweight’ and ‘wasting’ categories.

A similar pattern is seen in Pilibhit too – Rahul Gandhi’s aunt and BJP minister Maneka Gandhi has been elected from the constituency six times since 1989. Her son Varun Gandhi is the BJP’s candidate from the constituency this year. Pilibhit performs poorly in all the categories barring wasting.

Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh, which has been Congress leader and current chief minister Kamal Nath’s constituency for several decades now, performs poorly on underweight, wasting and anaemia indicators. Nath’s son Nakul is the Congress candidate this year.

Also read: How Maneka Gandhi plans to scare away the ‘monster’ under children’s beds   

Performance of SP constituencies in UP

Among regional parties, the Samajwadi Party’s first family represented the five seats it won in Uttar Pradesh in 2014.

Mainpuri, a pocket borough of the Yadavs, features in the bottom three deciles in stunting and low birth weight.  Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav is contesting from Mainpuri this time. In the 16th Lok Sabha, the constituency was represented by his nephew Tej Pratap Yadav.

Badaun, which has been represented by Mulayam’s nephew Dharmendra Yadav since 2009, performs poorly on the same indicators as well as on a third one – underweight.

Kannauj, which has been Mulayam Singh Yadav’s daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav’s constituency since 2012, is among the bottom three deciles of constituencies for stunting. Prior to her election, her husband and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was a three-term MP from the constituency.

BJP bastions & their performance

How do constituencies represented by senior MPs of the ruling party, the BJP, perform on these key undernutrition indicators?

Gandhinagar, a seat won by party veteran L.K. Advani six times, performs poorly on wasting and anaemia categories. BJP president Amit Shah is contesting from Gandhinagar this Lok Sabha election.

Indore in Madhya Pradesh, which has elected the longest-serving woman MP and the outgoing Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan eight times since 1989, performs poorly on low birth weight and anaemia.

Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh – chief minister Yogi Adityanath won the seat five times before he vacated it in 2017 – performs poorly on stunting.

Also read: On World Health Day – India’s politicians need to wake up and see the malnutrition crisis

Strong regional leaders & their constituencies

Familial loyalties often transcend party affiliations of representatives.

Guna in Madhya Pradesh, the stronghold of the royal Scindia family, has elected incumbent Jyotiraditya Scindia from the Congress four times since 2002. His late father Madhavrao Scindia was first elected from the constituency as a Bharatiya Jana Sangh MP in 1971, as an independent in 1977, and from the Congress party twice. His grandmother, the late Vijaya Raje Scindia was elected from the constituency six times, from the Indian National Congress and the Swatantra party (once each) and four times as a BJP legislator. And yet, the constituency performed poorly on all indicators barring anaemia in 2016.

Gwalior, another constituency where the Scindia family has had a firm footing, elected the late Madhavrao Scindia five times between 1984 and 1999 as an MP of the Congress party. His sister, Yashodhara Raje Scindia, has served the constituency as an MP twice on a BJP ticket in 2007 and 2009. Again, the constituency falls in the lowest three deciles on all the five nutrition indicators. BJP’s Narendra Singh Tomar is the incumbent MP elected in 2014.

Similarly, regional leaders continue to be elected for successive terms irrespective of their national political alliances. Lok Janshakti Party supremo Ram Vilas Paswan and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha’s Shibu Soren have both been elected eight times from their constituencies – Hajipur in Bihar and Dumka in Jharkhand respectively.

Both the regional leaders have alternately partnered with the BJP and the Congress. Both constituencies perform poorly on underweight, wasting, stunting and anaemia.

Failing the voter

While parliamentary constituency trends are arguably informed by state patterns, undernutrition kills the most vulnerable children prematurely, and hinders the social and economic growth of their families. These are deprived communities, which depend on elected representatives to amplify their voices. And yet, legislators trusted over repeated terms or across generations have failed the voter.

Data journalist Rukmini Srinivasan had found in this analysis that 130 of the 543 MPs, roughly one in four MPs, had ‘close family connections’ in the outgoing 16th Lok Sabha. While dynastic politics seems inevitable, can the Indian voter afford this blind patronage?

Also read: The S-A-A-R-E-G-A-M-A that PM Modi’s anti-malnutrition plan must not skip

Every National Family Health Survey and the Global Nutrition Report of 2016 have underlined the urgency of tackling undernutrition. And yet, when these MPs seek successive terms as people’s representatives, no questions are asked of them. Perhaps, collecting and monitoring data constituency-wise and not district-wise could make elected representatives more accountable. This might pave the way for undernutrition becoming an election agenda – an issue that people really need to talk about in India.

The author is a journalist and a PhD student in population health sciences at Harvard University. Views are personal.

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