It’s not just calories, stupid

Our poverty line was created way back in the early 1970s on the assumption that human beings needed a minimum of 2,400 calories per day in rural areas and 2,100 calories per day in more sedentary urban areas, giving an average of 2,200. Till today, the poverty line is calculated as the income associated with those calorie consumption levels in 1973-73.

Whatever the validity of such nutritional norms three decades ago, they make no sense at all today. The best way of showing this is to consider the calories in what is widely called junk food. The number of calories in McDonalds’ Big Mac sandwich (without mayonnaise) is 550; in Burger King’s Whopper sandwich is 650 calories; and in a Subway ham and turkey sandwich is 280 calories. So, if somebody had a Subway sandwich for breakfast, a Big Mac for lunch and a Whopper for dinner, his daily intake would be only 1480 calories. By our nutritional norms, this is a starvation diet. In fact, even Americans regards this as a road to obesity (especially when the sandwiches are accompanied by French fries and sugary colas).

For those who prefer academic papers to sandwich stories, I would like to highlight a paper by Professors Mahendra Dev and Evenson , (Rural Development in India), presented at the annual Stanford Conference on Indian Economic Policy this year. This shows that average calorie consumption in India has fallen even as incomes have risen for three decades.

Take a look at the accompanying table. It shows that average consumption of all Indians was 2,268 calories daily in 1972-73, and has gradually come down to just 2,030 in 1999-00. This is below not just the rural norm of 2,400 calories but even the sedentary urban norm of 2,100 calories.

Now, falling consumption is generally associated with falling income. But India has witnessed rising income for three decades. Per capita income has doubled, and the proportion of people below the poverty line has plummeted from 55% to 26%. Rising income and falling poverty have meant less calorie consumption, not more. This is a remarkable outcome.

Consider the bottom 30%. Back in 1977-78, half the population was below the poverty line, so the bottom 30% implied the poorest of the poor. But by 1999-2000, the poverty ratio was down to 26%, so the bottom 30% included some of the non-poor. You might think this would result in a significant increase in calorie consumption. Not so. The consumption of the bottom 30% was virtually the same in 1999-00 (1,626 calories) as in 1977-78(1,630 calories).

The consumption of the middle 40% actually fell, from 2,170 to 2,009 calories. So did the consumption of the richest 30% (from 3,161 calories to 2,462 calories). So, the 2,400 calories which nutritionists claim to be the basic minimum is actually what the obese rich consume.

Now, if the bottom 30% became middle class, their calorie consumption would surely rise from 1,600 calories to 2,000 calories, the average for the country. But the fact that they remain stuck at 1,600 calories does not mean they are not eating better. The poor are switching from inferior foods to superior foods, and from food to non-food items.

Mahendra Dev and Evans estimate that, for the poorest 30%, the share of household budgets spent on food has declined from 81.22% in 1972-73 to 62.71% in 1999-00, a clear sign that they can better satisfy urges other than hunger. Total cereal consumption of the bottom 30% has remained stationary at around 11.5 kilos per month, but the share of superior grains like rice and wheat has shot up, while that of coarse grain has slumped in this period from 4.45 kilos to 1.41 kilos/month. Spending on food other than cereals — that is, superior foods — has risen by around 15%.

This is a happy trend. Yet it is associated with calorie consumption that remains at around 1,600 calories per day for the bottom 30%. To me, this indicates clearly that the basic minimum for people is around 1,600 calories per day, far less than official nutritional norms.

What explains this? One reason is that nutritionists have exaggerated calorie needs to grab headlines and importance. A second and perhaps more important reason is that lifestyles have evolved so as to reduce calorie requirements. Mechanisation of every sort has penetrated rural India , substituting mechanical energy for manual energy. In Haryana and Punjab tractors are so widespread that it is getting difficult to find people who can plough with oxen. Buses, trucks and cycle rickshaws have penetrated rural and semi-rural areas, and 80% of households now have a bicycle, greatly reducing calories expended in walking long distances, sometimes with heavy loads. Farm operations of all sorts have been mechanised, from tilling, sowing and harvesting to post-harvest operations. Hand-hulling of grain has disappeared

What do you think?