How did economic reforms change the average Indian’s diet?

Economic reforms have diversified Indian diets, but there is still not enough on the plate


The Indian dietary diversification seems to be nothing when compared to the change which has taken place in the average Chinese person’s diet, where cereals and other calorie-rich items constitute just around a quarter of the diet. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The Indian dietary diversification seems to be nothing when compared to the change which has taken place in the average Chinese person’s diet, where cereals and other calorie-rich items constitute just around a quarter of the diet. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It has been 25 years since economic reforms in India. What has been liberalisation’s effect on the average Indian’s diet? Is it any different today than what it was in 1991? Which of the periods saw more changes in our food plates: Independence to economic reforms or the post-reform period?

Food Balance Sheet prepared by FAOSTAT, Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) database, allows such a comparison for India from 1961 to 2013. To be sure, the database does not tell us whether or not we are eating more pizzas than chapatis. But what it does tell is how much of what food item (in raw form) is being used for food purposes.

The parameter to look at is per capita food supply (kg per year). This variable accounts for two factors which can create a gap between production of a particular crop and the amount which is available for consumption. First is the effect of trade and addition to stocks. And second is the amount diverted to non-food use such as feed, seed, or waste. So, for a given population, net imports or depletion of stocks would increase the per capita supply, while an increase in use for seed or feed purposes would reduce it. To be sure, these are average figures and do not imply that all individuals are consuming the same amount. FAOSTAT data gives these estimates for broad groups as well as individual items. We have taken 17 broad groups out of the 21 sub-categories which have been given. Sugar crops and oil crops have been excluded to avoid an overlap with sugar and sweeteners and vegetable oil categories, while other aquatic products and miscellaneous have been left out because of negligible values.

The conclusion: the average Indian is consuming more after reforms.

Total per capita food supply (for above-mentioned categories) increased from 305 kg per year to 368 kg per year between 1961 and 1991. It went up to 478 kg per year in 2013. Given that data for post-reform period is for 22 years, compared to 30 years for the pre-reform period, annual increase in per capita food supply has been higher in the period after 1991.

Eggs are a clear winner of economic reforms

Between 1961 and 2013, the consumption of eggs increased by more than eight times, while that of alcoholic beverages saw an increase of more than five times. Pulses are the only major food group where per capita consumption has seen a decline. To be sure, the trends are different in pre-reform and post-reform periods. Tree-nuts and animal fats experienced the highest proportional increase in consumption between 1991 and 2013, while cereals and meat consumption suffered an absolute decline. The decline in meat consumption in the post-reform period is due to a large fall in consumption of red meat (beef, mutton, pork) despite there being a more than threefold increase in poultry meat consumption. Maybe India is becoming more healthy.

The diversification story

India’s dietary diversification story has triggered interest not just among culinary enthusiasts. The interpretation of declining per capita cereal consumption has been a contested area among economists disagreeing over the welfare impact of economic liberalisation.

Left-leaning economist Utsa Patnaik, a professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has been arguing that declining per capita cereal consumption along with a decline in average calorie levels are reflective of an increase in poverty which is not captured in official estimates. The official view -- one accepted by most economists -- is that the decline in cereal consumption is a result of dietary diversification which has happened because of increase in incomes, reflected in falling poverty levels. Princeton economist Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize last year, has also participated in the debate along with Jean Dreze. While disagreeing with Patnaik’s view, they called for circumspection about India’s official poverty numbers. An earlier Economics Express piece published in Mint discussed some of these issues in detail.

Also Read: Angus Deaton, poverty debates and Indian statistics

Comparison of undernutrition figures with Indian poverty estimates underlines Deaton’s doubts. As per official estimates, poverty came down by more than 14 percentage points between 1993-94 and 2011-12 in India. According to FAO’s estimates, the percentage of undernourished persons came down by merely 6.5 percentage points between 1991-93 and 2011-13 (three year averages).

What has been the extent and nature of dietary diversification in post-reform India? Basically, cereals have made way for more fruits and vegetables, while the share of protein-rich food items has been broadly the same. The Indian dietary diversification seems to be nothing when compared to the change which has taken place in the average Chinese person’s diet, where cereals and other calorie-rich items constitute just around a quarter of the diet.

The India-China gap becomes starker when one compares the total amount of per capita food supply in the two countries. In 1961, total per capita food supply was almost the same in the two countries. By 2013, an average Chinese ate almost double of what was available to the average Indian.

So is the plate still half full after 25 years of economic reforms for the average Indian?

The fact that Chinese diets have become more diverse and rich than Indian diets shows masses have gained from the reforms in China unlike India, said Ashok Gulati, chair professor for agriculture at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. The Chinese started their reforms with agriculture, whereas Indian reforms were more elitist in nature, focusing only on trade and industry. As a result, our agricultural production has grown at a much slower pace than China’s. The failure is also visible in the difference between malnutrition indicators in the two countries, Gulati added.

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