THE POOR are better fed after the initiation of economic reforms, according to the National Sample Surveys for 1991 (July-December) and 1992 (January-December).
The surveys asked of people whether they ate two square meals a day throughout the year, in some months of the year, or not at all.
In rural areas, those claiming to eat two square meals throughout .the year amounted to 88.3 per cent in 1990-91, the year preceding the reforms. This figure rose to 92.8 per cent in 1991 (July-December), and was 92.3 per cent in 1992.
A similar trend was evident in urban areas, with the fully fed rising from 95.5 per cent in 1990-91 to 96.9 per cent in 1991 (July-December) and 97.3 per cent in 1992.
What about those claiming not to get two square meals daily any time during the year?
In rural areas, such people accounted for 2.35 per cent of the population in 1983-84, which dropped to 0.7 per cent in 1990-91, and stayed at the same level in 1991 and 1992.
In urban areas, such people amounted to 0.77 per cent in 1983-84, 0.8 per cent in 1990-91, 0.9 per cent in 1991 (July-December) and then down to 0.4 per cent in 1992. Here again, the picture shows some net improvement after the reforms.
Paradoxically, the same NSS data suggest that more people have fallen under the poverty line after the reforms, as reported by this newspaper last week.
In an unpublished but widely quoted draft paper, Dr S P Gupta, director of ICRIER, calculated from data that the poverty ratio in rural areas was 39.1 per cent in 1987-88, fell to 33.7 per cent in 1989-90 and then rose to 35 per cent during 1990-91.
Subsequently, the poverty ratio shot up to 40 per cent in 1991 (July-December) and 41.72 per cent in 1992. In urban areas, according to Dr Gupta, poverty rose marginally after the reforms, from 37 per cent in 1990-91 to 37.6 per cent in 1991 (July-December) and 37.74 per cent in 1992.
Dr Gupta says he did not have the two square meals data when he wrote his paper, and now intends to revise his draft in the light of this information. He told The Economic Times: “If the consumption data show that more people are eating two square meals a day, it seems impossible that poverty could really have worsened.”
Analysts will be perplexed by data showing that people are better fed, yet poorer. Optimists will say that people surveyed are more likely to recall accurately whether they eat round the year than how much they consumed of individual items, and so give more weight to the two square meals data.
Pessimists will say that people are more likely to lie about getting two square meals a day (a mark of status), and so give greater weight to the total consumption data from which the poverty ratio is derived.
And the optimists will counter that any exaggeration on meals would have equally affected the data for earlier years, so the upward trend in being fully fed must be accurate even if there is some doubt about absolute level.
The surveys of 1983-84 and 1987-88 covered a full sample of 1 lakh households. But the later annual surveys were thin samples of only 12,000-15,000 households.
The contradictory trends of the mini-surveys seem to confirm that their data are not entirely reliable.
A full Survey of 1 lakh households has been carried out in 1993-94, and the results will become available in few months. That should provide a more authoritative picture.