India needs health education as a core part of its school curriculum

2019 is an important year for Indian education. The Draft National Education Policy has recommended the doubling of public funding on education to 6% of GDP. This would be a welcome boost for the education sector.

However, one of the areas where the Draft NEP is silent is on the importance of health education. Today, this means physical education and sports in most schools in India. It neglects a more holistic health approach to increasing human capital by educating our youth to become healthy and productive members of society.

India has the highest disease burden of any country in the world. Additionally, the life expectancy of the average Indian is only 69 years, below that of Nepal and Bangladesh, which have leapfrogged India in the last 20 years. Some of the reasons for this are the rise of the sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition and hygiene, high use of tobacco, high risk of injuries and environmental pollution.

Diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other non-communicable diseases are on the rise. There were 72 million cases of diabetes in 2017, a figure expected to double by 2025. At the same time, there is a very high prevalence of infectious diseases caused by poor hygiene and sanitation. For example, more than 66,000 Indian children between the age of five and 14 years of age die every year from diarrheal and other infectious diseases. As a comparison, there were 28 such deaths in the same year in the United States.

The general population is unaware of the changes in lifestyle which could keep them away from these diseases. This can be improved by implementing a mandatory health education curriculum in the K-12 Indian schools. The inculcating of a healthy lifestyle is something that needs to be taught to children early on, so that they adopt healthy habits. If this does not happen, changing health habits of adults becomes very challenging.

The education system policymakers have given attention to the need for physical education but there is lack of focus on comprehensive health education as an essential part of the curriculum. In a way, it’s clear to see why. With sports, the benefits are immediately apparent — students are more focused in class, feel happier and therefore see better educational outcomes.

However, this is not enough. A comprehensive health education curriculum must incorporate physical, mental and social health. The return on investment may take longer, but it has a lifetime of benefit. The knowledge and vision to embed this in the curriculum is so far missing from policymakers. There is no curriculum or dedicated books on comprehensive health education in the country.

Tarang Health Alliance has spent the last few years researching this in India and is planning to conduct a year-long trial in several schools in Delhi with a comprehensive health education curriculum. We have developed student workbooks and teacher’s manual for Classes 6 and 7 in English and Hindi. This has been supported by generous donations from my fellow Rotarians.

The curriculum covers nutrition, sanitation, alcohol and drugs, pollution, nutrition, injuries, relationships, self-esteem, emotions etc. In order to change the health habits of youth, evidence indicates that at least 40 hours of health education instruction needs to be conducted every year.

So far, we’ve taught in schools in Chandigarh and Delhi, teaching the basics of nutrition, sanitation and drinking clean water as well as showing children how to wash their hands using Glogerm. The response has been incredible from the children — there is a real need for this, and a definite appetite from the inquisitive young minds to learn more about simple techniques that will help them live better and healthier lives. What they learn at school, they then take to their parents and wider family too.

India is a young population and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The demographic dividend is often talked about as a significant factor in robust future economic growth. But India has the highest disease burden of any country, 49% of the world’s diabetes burden, with high prevalence of infectious diseases and an epidemic in undiagnosed mental health illness. These are problems that can be fixed, if we have the will and the focus. It starts with educating our youth on how to lead healthy lifestyles across all schools.


Rahul Mehra Author


Executive Director of the Tarang Health Alliance. Worked as a research scientist in hospitals and then in the medical industry in the US, was granted over 75 patents on various medical technologies and has authored over 90 manuscripts and 24 book chapters.

Published Date

November 5, 2019

"You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty."

– Mahatma Gandhi