A surprising explanation why Indian children are so short

You learn something new every day. Today, we learned that the people of India are short. Really short.

As someone who went to graduate school to study economics, I’ve come to know quite a few Indians and people of Indian descent. Some have been tall, some have been short, some have been thin, and some have been fat.

But, I’ve never walked away thinking to myself, “Gee, Indians sure are short.”

That means I’ve never stayed up at night wondering, “Why are Indians so short?”

First, let’s get an idea of how short is short.

According to one easily obtainable set of data, the average American male age 20 and older is 5 feet, 9.5 inches tall. The average Mexican is 5 feet, 5.9 inches tall. And, the average Indian adult male is just under 5 feet, 4 inches tall. That’s shorter than the average North Korean male who has had to suffer through years of malnutrition.

Apparently this has been enough to keep two economists up at night asking “Why are Indians so short?” Indeed, their working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has the obvious title, “Why are Indian children so short?

The authors begin by noting that Indian children are shorter than many poorer sub-Saharan African countries.

First, they account for some of the biggest differences, such as differences in healthcare such as vaccination.

Then, they note something curious. The authors find that the difference in height between Indian and African children gets worse with birth order. In other words, there’s a difference in height between Indian and African first born children and the difference gets bigger with the second child, the third child, and so on. And, the difference is bigger between Indian and African girls.

This finding leads the authors to conclude that a preference for eldest sons in India leads to a significant unequal allocation of resources within families in India. This preference includes a desire (1) to have at least one son and (2) for the eldest son to be healthy.

The researchers—who are themselves Indian—not that eldest son preference can be traced to at least two aspects of Hindu religion. First, Hinduism prescribes a system in which aging parents live with their son, typically the eldest, and bequeath their property to him. Second, Hindu religious texts emphasize post-death rituals which can only be conducted by a male heir such as lighting the funeral pyre, taking the ashes to the Ganges River, and organizing death anniversary ceremonies.

The result is a strong preference for son and a desire to for the eldest son be healthy enough to fulfill his obligations to his aging parents.

The other result is a nation with a small group of relatively tall men and a large group of much shorter men and women, leading to an overall depression in average height.

UPDATE: For a more in-depth discussion, without reading the actual working paper, the authors have written a summary at VoxEU.

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