How hungry are Indians?

The monsoon is about to arrive, and people are anxiously scanning the skies. Two of the last three years have seen poor rains, and the drought last year was the worst for decades. How bad is the hunger caused by such deprivation?

Roughly a quarter of the population remains below the poverty line. Readers may conclude that a quarter of the population goes hungry. Not so. Indeed, hunger is remarkably low in India. Only 3 per cent of people say that they do not get enough to eat every day of the year.

You might think this is an achievement worth boasting about. However, few economists mention the data on hunger. Those who have made a living by claiming that poverty is high are most likely to keep silent on this. But surely we need to talk about an important issue where much progress has been made.

The National Sample Survey Organisation conducts surveys every five or six years to measure poverty in the country. One of the questions asked is whether people get enough food every day of the year. If not, do they get insufficient food in some months of the year, or in every month?

The accompanying table shows the facts. In the 1983 survey, 81.1 per cent of people said they were never hungry. So, barely 19 per cent were ever hungry during the year — less than half the proportion recorded as being under the poverty line. Government economists were embarrassed by this divergence between the poverty ratio and hunger ratio: they had long claimed that the poverty line had been calculated on the basis of adequate nutrition, and the claim now looked absurd.

Their reaction? Why, to drop the embarrassing question on hunger altogether for the next survey in 1987-88! You do not have to explain data that are not collected! However, other economists expressed outrage at this, so the question was restored in the 1993-94 and 1999-00 surveys.

These show an ever-growing divergence between the poverty and hunger ratios. Poverty has fallen, but hunger has fallen much faster. The proportion of rural Indians saying they are never hungry rose to 94.5 per cent in 1993-94, and to 96.2 per cent in 1999-00. The urban proportion was 98.1 and 98.6 per cent respectively. The chronically hungry (who experienced hunger in every month of the year) shrank from 2.4 in 1983-84 to 0.7 per cent in 1999-00 in rural areas, and from 0.8 to 0.3 per cent in urban areas.

Many readers will be amazed. Why, they will ask, does the media never highlight these data? Well, let me plead guilty along with the others: we have all focused on the poverty figures and ignored the hunger data. I now seek to rectify this omission.

Some people may doubt the accuracy of the data. My friend P. Sainath once told me that it hurts the pride of people to say they are hungry, and so they claim to have full bellies even when they are hungry. I wondered, is this so? Or is it a lame rationalisation of those who have been exposed as exaggerating hunger? If the surveyed people do not lose pride in claiming to be poor, why should they lose pride in claiming to be hungry?

I checked this out with a nephew working for an NGO in the villages of Rajasthan. I asked, will people truthfully tell surveyors whether they are hungry? My nephew thought a minute before replying. If the question is asked by people within a village, villagers may overstate their living standards to keep up appearances with neighbours. But if somebody from outside asks the question, villagers will tend to understate their living standards and claim great distress, since they know it might get some compensation or benefit.

That sounds a fair assessment to me. I believe the hunger data do not understate the truth, and may overstate it. Only around 3 per cent of Indians suffer from hunger.

Impossible, some readers will say. The TV news last year was full of people who were not only hungry but sometimes starved to death. Very true. But remember that 3 per cent of India’s population means 30 million people. That is a huge number in absolute terms, and explains why the media can find them quite easily in distressed areas.

Clearly a hunger ratio of even 3 per cent is too high for a country of our size. We need to bring it down to zero. But let us boast a little about the fact that we have reduced the ratio from 19 per cent to 3 per cent. It is an achievement of some note.

What do you think?