Poverty, Undernutrition and Food Security in Contemporary India

July 4, 2013


By Deepankar Basu

One of the easiest ways to understand the perverse nature of the growth regime underlying “India Shining” is to trace out the divergence between expenditure-based measures of poverty (POV) and the calorie-based measures of the prevalence of undernutrition (POU). To highlight this alarming divergence, Figure 1 and 2 plots measures of POV and POU in rural and urban India, respectively, from 1983 to 2009-10. As I argue below, this divergence has important implications for the debate on food security that is currently underway in India with the tabling of the National Food Security Bill 2013 on 22 March, 2013 in Parliament and the Cabinet nod on July 3, 2013 for the ordinance. The divergence between POV and POU implies that the best way to address widespread, and increasing, food insecurity in India is to bring back the universal PDS.

Poverty versus Undernutrition

Let me begin by defining POV and POU the evolution of which is depicted in Figures 1 and 2. POV is measured as the proportion of the rural population that spent (or earned) less than a pre-specified amount, often called the “poverty line” or the “poverty threshold”. The poverty line can be understood as the minimum expenditure that is needed to purchase a bundle of goods and services – food, fuel, lighting, transportation, healthcare, education, etc., – that is deemed necessary for surviving and working (for details of poverty measurement see this article on Sanhati).


Figure 1: Poverty and Undernutrition in Rural India, 1983 to 2009-10.

For instance, according to the Planning Commission of India, the poverty line in rural India in 2009-10 was Rs. 672.8 per month per person (the poverty line in urban India in that period was Rs. 859.6 per month per person). Thus, anyone who spent less than this amount would be counted as poor. It is the proportion of all such people in the population in rural India that is represented as “expenditure-based poverty” in Figure 1 and 2 (what I have referred to as POV). Where do we get these numbers from ? These numbers for POV are taken from the website of the Planning Commission of India and rely on, since 1993-94, some refinement of the methodology used for calculating poverty lines based on recommendations of the Tendulkar Committee. The year 1999-00 has been left out from Figures 1 and 2 because there is disagreement, due to problems in the data, among economists about the extent of poverty in that year.

The second variable in Figure 1 and 2 is the prevalence of undernutrition. It is measured as the proportion of persons whose calorie intake was less than 2400 Kcal per person per day in rural India and less than 2100 Kcal per person per day in urban India. Why 2400 and 2100 Kcal per person per day? This is a commonly used “calorie norm”, understood as the minimum calorie (energy) intake that is deemed necessary to meet the physiological needs of healthy persons of a given age, sex and occupation. For instance, a calorie norm of 2400 Kcal per person per day in rural areas (and a norm of 2100 Kcal per person per day in urban areas) was used to construct the first poverty line in India in 1972. Since demographic and occupational structure of the population changes over time, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) periodically comes out with its recommended calorie norms (what it calls Required Daily Allowance).


Figure 2: Poverty and Undernutrition in Urban India, 1983 to 2009-10.

In its 2010 report (the latest report that is currently available), the ICMR suggested the following calorie norms. For men, the calorie norms (measured in Kcal per day) were as follows: 2320 (sedentary work), 2730 (moderate work), 3490 (heavy work). The corresponding norms for women were: 1900 (sedentary work), 2230 (moderate work), 2850 (heavy work). Thus, 2400 Kcal per person per day for rural areas (and 2100 Kcal per person per day for urban areas), which lies between the lowest and higher figures presented by the ICMR, seems a reasonable average number to use to quantify the prevalence of undernutrition.

What is the source for the numbers on undernutrition in Figure 1 and 2? The numbers for the prevalence of undernutriton (POU), in Figure 1 and 2, are taken two sources. For all years other than 2009-10, the numbers are from a 2009 paper by economists Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze published in the Economic and Political Weekly. Deaton and Dreze use household level data from various NSS consumption expenditure surveys to calculate POU. The 2009-10 number has been taken from Report 540 (Table 3A-R, page A-156 for rural areas; and Table 3A-U, page A-168 for urban areas) of the National Sample Survey Organization (“Nutritional Intake in India”) published in January 2012 and represents a lower estimate of the actual number. Thus, the true prevalence of undernutrition in 2009-10 is higher than what is depicted in Figure 1 and 2.

The Great Divergence

What story does Figures 1 and 2 tell us? The most striking aspect of both these charts is the sharp divergence between POV and POU that they highlight, especially for the period of the so-called “reforms” (in his recent research, economist Ranjan Ray has studied this divergence).This divergence tells us in no uncertain terms that even as expenditure-based measures of poverty have declined in India, calorie-based measures of undernutrition and hunger have gone up.

For rural India (Figure 1), poverty fluctuated between 45% and 50% over the decade-long period between 1983 and 1993-94. Over this period, the prevalence of undernutrition (POU) inched up mildly, from 66% to 71%. In the decade and a half period since then, by most accounts, poverty has secularly declined, falling from 50% in 1993-94 to 33% in 2009-10. During this latter period, POU has secularly increased from 71% to more than 90%. Hence, POV and POU have sharply diverged after the onset of the “reforms” in rural India.

In urban India (Figure 2), we see a secular decline in poverty. It fell from 41% in 1983 to 21% in 20091-10. POU shows are different pattern. Between 1983 and 1993-94, POU actually fell from 61% to 58%. In the decade and a half period since 1993-94, POU has increased from 58% to over 70%. Urban India is no different, then: since the beginning of the reforms, POV and POU have diverged here too. Thus, the divergence between POV and POU is a countrywide phenomenon.

Two facts need to be reiterated, the first about levels and the second about trends.

In 2009-10, more than 90 percent of the population in rural India consumed less than 2400 Kcal per capita per day; average calorie intake was 2020 Kcal per capita per day, far below the ICMR recommended calorie norm (Table 3A-R, page A-156, Report 540, NSSO). During the same period, between 70 and 80 percent of the population in urban India consumed less than 2100 Kcal per capita per day; average calorie intake was a meager 1946 Kcal per capita per day, again much lower than the calorie norm (Table 3A-U, page A-168, Report 540, NSSO). Thus, the vast majority of the Indian population is undernourished; their levels of calorie intake are far lower than ICMR norms.

The period of the economic reforms has also been the period that saw an increasing divergence between poverty and undernutrition. Even as POV (expenditure-based measures of poverty) declined, POU (the prevalence of undernutrition) increased. This is as much true of rural as of urban India.

Undermining Food Security

This trend of divergence between POV and POU has a simple but powerful implication for food security policy. Any attempt to use expenditure-based measures of poverty to “target” the food subsidy to the needy, as implicitly proposed in the National Food Security Bill 2013, is deeply flawed. This is because a large section of what would be considered “non-poor” households (by expenditure-based measures of poverty) is seriously undernourished. Keeping them out of the ambit of the food subsidy program defeats the main purpose of any such program, which is to eliminate hunger and undernutrition in the country. Only a well-functioning, accountable, universal Public Distribution System (PDS) can truly, and effectively, address the extent of undernutrition that is seen in India.

But how did India come to adopt a “targeted” PDS? Let us go through the history quickly.

Faced with endemic poverty and a vast agricultural sector populated by small-scale farmers, India developed an elaborate food management system in the early 1950. The purpose of this system was to deal with the twin problems of poverty (manifested in acute undernutrition) and price volatility (that adversely impacted farmers and the working poor).

The food management system had two crucial components. On one side, it had a procurement system that bought foodgrains from farmers at a minimum support price (MSP) to ensure some modicum of profitability and price stability to them. On the other side, it had a food distribution system that made foodgrains available to every citizen through a countrywide network of Fair Price Shops at below-market prices, in effect making it a universal Public Distribution System (PDS).

The universal PDS had its problems, like lack of accountability and elite capture, but instead of addressing these issues, the government launched a targeted PDS (TPDS) in June 1997. The TPDS divided the population into two categories, below poverty line (BPL) and above poverty line (APL) households. Both the quantity and issue price of food grains was different for the BPL and APL families, a move justified by the logic that only BPL families “truly” required subsidized food. With the introduction of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) in December 2000, the focus of the TPDS was narrowed down further to “target” the very poor households, about one-sixth of all households.

Researchers, activists, and even government agencies have agreed that the TPDS was a major disaster: identification of BPL and APL families was plagued by problems of exclusion and inclusion errors; the leakage of foodgrain from the system increased; prices of foodgrains became more volatile. No wonder a 2002 High Level Committee on Long-term Grain Policy recommended a return to the universal PDS (for a more detailed analysis of the food policy conundrum in India, especially with regard to the proposed move towards a direct cash transfer scheme, see the article “In cash or in kind” that Debarshi Das and I wrote for a special issue of Himal).

Given this history, it is almost necessarily true that the current National Food Security Bill is an improvement over the existing system of targeted public distribution system (TPDS). But the move from an universal to a targeted PDS in 1997 was itself a big mistake. The best way forward is to bring back universal PDS and reform its functioning, along the lines seen in successful PDS states like Tamil Nadu, not to take further steps in the direction of a TPDS. The alarming trend of divergence between poverty and prevalence of undernutrition since the early 1990s suggests that India needs to move away from a “targeted” PDS. Only a universal PDS, by giving the opportunity to all households to access subsidized food, can help address the serious problem of undernutrition in India.

(Sources of Data: In Figure 1 and 2, data on poverty is from the Planning Commission of India; data on the prevalence of undernutrition is from (1) Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze, “Food and Nutrition in India: Facts and Interpretation”, Economic and Political Weekly, February 14, 2009; and (2) Nutritional Intake in India, Report 540, National Sample Survey Organization.)

1 Comment »

One Response to “Poverty, Undernutrition and Food Security in Contemporary India”

  1. joseph benny Says:
    July 15th, 2013 at 07:18

    Control the food, control the man

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