In the decade and a half that India has flirted with and embraced economic reforms, a curious problem has haunted the country and vexed its economists: As India is growing richer, Indians are growing hungrier.
To many, that fact appears counter-intuitive: How can it be that as incomes have risen, much-needed calories have vanished from the plates of those who need them the most? And, to economists, it is a trend that so far has evaded explanation and almost certainly is unique to India.
Food for thought: Construction workers from Madhya Pradesh having dinner in the Capital. Some experts say that as incomes have increased for the poor, other demands on those incomes have reduced the amount available for food. (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
For those whose lives have been ravaged by unending hunger and malnourishment, the reality is stark: Compared with 1990, when the decline started, Indians are consuming almost 16% less calories a day, while almost just as many women suffer from anaemia, and their children from malnourishment.
Take, for instance, Jyothi, a woman with one name, no husband and memories of a childhood stalked by hunger.
Since 1991, her life has changed a lot. From the daughter of a hardscrabble farm worker in India’s desolate countryside to a daily wage earner and single mother of three children in India’s richest city, New Delhi, her travels trace a migratory path common among many of India’s poor. What hasn’t changed is the half-empty plate she stares at every night for dinner.
On a recent Wednesday night, these were the paltry contents of her dinner—two-and-a-half chapattis, a thin curry of potatoes and one-half tomato, one onion and a chilli. By the most generous of counts, that’s no more than 400 kilocalories (kcal).
Jyothi’s three sons get approximately the same amount, with a small bowl of pickled mangoes to spice up the meal. They eat fast, almost hurriedly. “It’s enough for me,” she says. “If there’s anything left over, I will eat it in the morning.”
The problem is multifaceted. Years of economic gains, which have seen the Indian economy double in size in a little more than a decade, have raised millions of Indians above the official measures of poverty. Yet, about the same proportion of Indians are calorie-deficient today as they were in 1997, just before India’s economy really started to gallop, according to a measure called the Global Hunger Index published by the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Exacerbating the problem is nutrition data that shows that not only is the number of people who are calorie-deficient unchanged by economic growth, but those people are actually even hungrier now than they were in the late 1980s. On average, Indians in 2005 consumed 370kcal less a day than they did in 1988, according to data compiled by the National Nutrition Monitoring Board, dropping from about 2,290kcal a day to just more than 1,900. In deciding India’s poverty lines, the government has assumed that an urban Indian needs 2,100kcal a day, and a rural worker about 2,400.
Why, at a time when there has been some measurable growth in incomes all over the country, is this happening? Simply put, economists—and politicians—don’t know.
“In this area, that’s a million-dollar question,” said Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Poverty Action Lab.
Theories abound, but they remain just that.
Critics of economic reforms argue that this is the direct result of increasing gaps between the poor and the rich; that as the country ignores the agricultural sector and allows food price inflation to grow unabated, food is vanishing from the plates of India’s poorest.
An unresolved puzzle
Supporters of India’s growth story point to the fact that the poor have, in fact, seen measurable increases in their incomes, and that the changes in their consumption patterns are behavioural—they are substituting more expensive food-grains into their diets that may not be as nutritious, that they are making changes to their spending patterns that are not dictated by scarcity but by desires to be upwardly mobile.
“But these are nothing more than hypotheses,” said Jean Dreze, a French economist renowned for his work on nutrition in India, and also an activist with the New Delhi-based Right to Food Campaign.
“This ‘puzzle’ is yet to be resolved.”
The impact is evident: In the last seven years, a period of heady growth, the number of children under five years of age who are malnourished has dropped by just 1 percentage point, from 47% to 46%, according to the most recent National Family Health Survey.
Jyothi has managed to hold on to a relatively steady—if inadequate—diet because she left the villages for the city, increasing her income just enough to eat the same amount year after year.
She has never been to a doctor and was told by a midwife that she is anaemic, a problem common to one in two Indian women because of their inadequate diet. Barely 55% of India’s women drink milk or eat yogurt at least once a week, only one in three eat a fruit, and even fewer than that—28%—get an egg.
Her family’s life is, in a way, an indictment of how unambitious development goals have been. Studies show that for people at the lower end of society, even doubling their income makes only a marginal improvement in their lives: people living on $2 (just under Rs80) a day have much the same lives as those living on $1 a day.
The World Bank estimates about 300 million Indians live on less than $1 a day, less than the 350 million 2003 estimate. But, among both the urban and the rural poor, that graduation from the categories of the “extremely poor” to the “poor” has brought about few measurable improvements, according to Banerjee’s 2006 study in the economic lives of the poor. They and their family members fall ill just as often, have zero to little access to in-house piped water, are marginally more likely to own a radio and spend about the same proportions of their incomes on food.
One hypothesis that might explain this calorie consumption paradox is this: As incomes have increased for the poor, other demands on that income have reduced the amount available for food. That’s a theory advanced by Madhura Swaminathan, an economist at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, which she said is drawn from her work among slum dwellers in Mumbai. She found in her 1997 study that when slum dwellers earned more, the money was spent on health care, because they were more often ill owing to bad water, and commuting to job sites as transportation costs were increasingly unsubsidized by the government. She also found that food price inflation hit them harder.
“There are a lot of other demands in their expenditure that are also essential,” said Swaminathan. “And these are forced expenditures; forced by circumstances.”
More money, less food
That trend is evident even in Bangalore, the most visible of India’s booming cities, some 1,730km south of New Delhi.
Here, by most measures, poverty has receded under the rapid onslaught of a decade long outsourcing-driven economic boom, turning a small town into a major city of the world. With its ballooning middle class, and relatively higher incomes, Bangalore’s information technology industry has created hundreds of thousands of jobs on its periphery—drivers, maids, sweepers and security guards —leading to a migration never before seen in south India.
But data painstakingly collected—and vehemently argued over—by economists reflect the same national trend that defies scientific explanation: Even as Indians grow richer, they are consuming fewer calories than they need to stay healthy.
Mary Antony, a 35-year-old household helper in Jaynagar, a suburb of Bangalore, has seen a decade of rapid income increases ironed out by inflation and the increased costs of participating in India’s economic growth, which is mostly restricted to large cities.
Ten years ago, living in Hunsur, a town outside Mysore, she worked as a farm-hand earning Rs20 a day. She lived in a family of seven, of which another four men also worked as better-paid farm-hands, bringing their monthly wages to about Rs5,000, above the government prescribed poverty line on a per-person basis. But for just Rs200 a month, she remembers, her family added lentils, eggs, chicken and meat to a diet of mostly ragi—a cereal that they grew on their land—and milk from a cow they owned.
Since then, the family has moved to Bangalore, and achieved what many would call the middle-class dream. They’ve bought a two-room apartment in a low income housing colony in the suburbs. Their income has doubled, but the amount of money they have to spend on food has gone up 10-fold, in spite of the fact that she and her children eat their lunches for free, at her employers and their schools, respectively. They eat more rice now, and buy a half-litre of milk each day, and once a week, buy 1kg of chicken or meat and seven eggs divided among six people, including an ageing mother.
Socially, they may have moved up the ladder of progress. Nutritionally, their gains have been meagre. In fact, if national averages were to be considered, her family is lucky to be eating as much today as they did 10 years ago.
Jyothi, too, has seen her income increase. In 1997, she remembers, she made about Rs30 a day. That Wednesday, she made about Rs80, putting her and her children squarely among Indians who live on approximately Rs20 a day, according to the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector.
For her, a 15-year journey—from the darkness of the life of a low-caste, landless farm-worker’s daughter from a village outside Panchmarhi in Madhya Pradesh to construction sites of India’s Capital—has been a zero-sum game. That Wednesday night at dinner, she said, her children ate no more or no less than she had eaten for most of her childhood meals.
Lunch was the same, and breakfast was one dried chapatti and an onion. All told, at least a few hundred calories short of what a normal adult needs just to stay healthy.
Reforms and nutrition
There is perhaps no starker measure for how much less food Indians have been eating during the last 15 years of economic reforms than the data collected by Utsa Patnaik, a professor at Jawarharlal Nehru University, and the author of The Republic of Hunger. She found that between 1950 and 1991, consumption of foodgrains rose from 152kg a year to 177kg per person, per year in India.
During that time, India’s economic growth languished at the much derided, snail-paced “Hindu rate of growth”.
But in 1991, per capita foodgrain consumption started to drop, almost as soon as liberalization kicked in. By 1998, it fell by 3kg over seven years. By 2003, it was back to almost the 1950 levels: 155kg a head.
“Those gains of four decades have been wiped out in a single decade of economic reform,” said Patnaik, whose analyses of this data have been attacked by supporters of economic reforms.
Basic cereals and pulses cost more than double what they did since 1993, according to government’s statistics, and wheat, fruits and vegetables cost significantly more than twice what they cost in 1993. These inflationary trends are likely to continue—the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that the “world food supply is dwindling rapidly and food prices are soaring to historical levels.”
Yogendra Alagh, an economist and long-time counsellor to the Indian government, has watched India’s hunger evolve from the “ship-to-mouth” days of the 1970s food crises, to what he describes today, where “the hard core areas of poverty have increased, and the concern to relieve that poverty has lessened.” Yet, data shows that the kind of widespread starvation that India used to be associated with is now a thing of the past, he pointed out. Instead, he said, this nutrition paradox, and the unresolved hunger of a narrow band of incredibly poor districts in India are the new problems.
“This is a country that can lick this problem,” said Alagh, who in 1978 chaired the task force that first came up with a definition for India’s poverty link. “It is roaring to become the third or fourth largest economy in the world—it is not that it cannot give a poor pregnant woman a glass of milk so that the next generation is not stunted.”
But the current nature of the reforms, he said, don’t tackle the problem head-on.
“The reform mentality is to forget about them, because some day or the other percolation might resolve the issues,” he said. “On the other hand, since increasing incomes are not increasing nutrition, maybe it is time to look at nutrition based policies instead.”
According to a still unpublished report by the World Bank’s leading economist on inequality, India’s long-term measures of inequality have remained mostly unchanged since 1950. In fact, the study’s author Branko Milanovic found most of the variations in those measures took place in the top 1%, leaving people such as Jyothi and her family with an uninterrupted 50-plus-year run at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Jyothi herself sees little improvement between her life and that of her parents or grandparents.
In a small box, in which she keeps some family heirlooms—a wedding photo of her parents, a ring with a black stone, and some papers—she also hides the money that she has been able to save in the last two years of life in New Delhi: about Rs1,800.
Why doesn’t she spend some of that money on food?
“I could fall sick tomorrow, or break my leg, or die under a bus,” she said. “What will happen to my children then?”
Bloomberg’s Cherian Thomas contributed to this story.