Why are we consuming fewer calories?

The 61st NSSO round shows (see accompanying table) that per capita calorie consumption in India has declined once again in 2004-05, measured in kilocalories (popularly referred to simply as calories). Consumption has fallen to 2,047 calories in rural India (against the norm of 2,400) and to 2,020 calories in urban areas (against the norm of 2,100). Leftists will doubtless expostulate that, far from reducing poverty, Indian policy is worsening it.

However, per capita calorie consumption has been falling steadily in virtually every NSSO survey between 1972-73 and 2004-05. Paradoxically, the same surveys show that the poverty ratio has halved in this period from 56% to 28%. Strange though it may seem, falling poverty goes hand in hand with falling calorie intake.

Can there be some horrible statistical mistake here? To check, we can go to the NSSO surveys measuring the hunger ratio — the ratio of people saying they do not get enough to eat. This was 15% in 1983. It fell in 1993-94 to 5.5% in rural and 1.9% in urban areas. It declined further in 2004-05 to 2.6% in rural and 0.6% in urban areas.

So, hunger has largely disappeared. And if people are not hungry, it cannot be a tragedy that they do not eat more, or consume fewer calories. Surveys suggest that all income groups, even the bottom 30%, are shifting from basic foods (like cereals and dal) to superior foods such as fats, tea, sugar, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit. The per capita consumption of superior foods is rising even as that of cereals (and calories) is dipping. And at every income level people are consuming more non-food items, which typically shows rising prosperity.

But why is calorie intake falling? Economists like Hanumantha Rao and Mahendra Dev have an explanation. With mechanisation replacing manual work in most walks of life, people need fewer calories. Increasingly, ploughing is done by tractors, harvesting and threshing by harvester combines, milling by mechanical mills.

Chemical fertilisers are scattered by hand, whereas manure has to be spread manually over acres. Cycles and buses have reduced long walks. So, except in the remotest areas, people need fewer calories, and so shift to superior foods and non-food spending.

Nonsense, says the leftist brigade, falling calorie intake is a clear side of deprivation. Really? The notion that low calorie intake equals misery looks utterly comic, says Mahendra Dev, if we consider state-level data.

The latest survey shows that the three states with the lowest rural calorie intake are Tamil Nadu (1,842), Karnataka (1,845) and Gujarat (1,923). Can anybody seriously argue than these states are far hungrier than Bihar (2,049) and UP (2,200)? Indeed, the data show that UP had consumption as high as 2,575 back in 1972-73. Is it at all credible that UP was better fed in the bad old days than Tamil Nadu and Gujarat today? Don’t make me laugh.

The lowest urban consumption among states is in Maharashtra (1,847 calories). Does anyone seriously interpret this to mean that urban folk in Mumbai are grossly underfed, much more so than in like UP and Bihar?

But even if Indians as a whole are not underfed, what about the bottom 30%? The latest NSSO survey does not give a break-up by income levels, but Mahendra Dev and Evenson (2003) have done this exercise for previous rounds (see last three rows in table 1).

This shows a huge fall in calorie intake over time for the top 30% of the population to 2,463 calories, a sign of wiser diets. But the middle 40% has lowered its consumption from 2,270 to just 2009 calories, below our nutritional norms. The poor had only 1,504 calories in 1972-73, but in subsequent years have remained at a plateau of 1,600-1,700 calories per day. This is hugely below the nutritional norm.

Can this be explained entirely by the reason proffered by Hanumantha Rao and Mahendra Dev, that mechanisation reduces calorie needs? One suspects we need some additional explanations. Here are some possibilities.

Our nutritional norms — 2,400 calories/day in rural and 2,100 calories/day in urban areas — are probably wrong. If you ate a Subway ham/cheese sandwich for breakfast, a Big Mac from McDonalds for lunch, and a Whopper from Burger King for dinner, you would be criticised for addiction to junk food. Yet the Subway sandwich has just 280 calories, the Big Mac 550 calories, and the Whopper 650 calories, making 1,480 in all. According to our nutritional norms, somebody eating this diet is starving! Something seems dreadfully wrong with our calorie norms. One suspects much lower norms are called for.

Economist Ashok Rudra found that labourers in West Bengal consumed 1,500 calories/day, yet worked all their lives without collapsing or dying. So, even if 2,400 calories are desirable in some sense, 1,600 may be enough for practical purposes. That seems to be the message coming from rural families who switch to non-food items rather than increase calorie intake much beyond 1,600 calories.

Perhaps men do not admit to surveyors the full amount of liquor they drink. If so, calorie intake may be higher than reported. Many surveys show that people underestimate consumption when asked to recall it over 30 days. Recall over seven days gives higher consumption data. Maybe the NSSO is depending too much on 30-day recall, and so underestimates calorie intake.

Some people find the hunger data too good to be true. Leftists allege that poor people are too proud to admit that they are hungry. I asked a rural NGO friend if this could be the case. He replied that rural folk certainly exaggerate consumption when talking to their peers, for status reasons. But when talking to outsiders — like NSSO surveyors — they will, if anything, under-report consumption, hoping to get some extra subsidy or benefit.

The bottom line is comforting. Falling calorie consumption does not signify distress. It is entirely compatible with other data showing that poverty is falling and hunger has almost disappeared. Rural deprivation of many kinds remains distressingly high. But things are getting better, not worse.


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