National Sample Survey Organisation's report on the average calorie intake per person in Indian households points to a much higher incidence of poverty in the country than reflected in estimates of the proportion of the population below the official "poverty" line.

Among the features that sully India’s “growth story” is the persistence and possible worsening of malnutrition in the country. The subsistence nutritional intake adopted when defining the official poverty line expenditure for 1972-73 was 2400 Kcal per person per day for the adult rural population and 2100 Kcal (henceforth “calories”) per person per day for the urban population Needless to say, calorie requirements would vary depending on the build and occupation of individuals and would be substantially different for different age groups. As a standard, the National Institute of Nutrition set the requirement for members of a reference group consisting of Indian males of age 18-29 years with normal body mass index and weight of 60 kg engaged in sedentary work at 2320 calories per day. Thus, the 2300 to 2400 calories per day range provides the benchmark for required calorie intake for a representative Indian.

The National Sample Survey (NSS) Organisation has in periodical consumption expenditure surveys been collecting and putting out figures on the average calorie intake per person in Indian households. It has also provides figures on calorie intake per consumption unit adjusted for age, with a male child in the 4-6 year age group treated as equivalent to 0.54 of a representative consumption unit and a male in the 70-plus age group treated as equivalent to 0.7 of a representative consumption unit. It has recently released such figures for 2009-10 (NSS Report No. 540: Nutritional Intake in India), permitting an assessment of the nutritional situation in the country.

On first glance the results seem to give some cause for satisfaction. At the All-India level calorie intake per consumption unit stood at 2647 calories in rural areas and 2604 calories in urban areas, both of which are higher than the “recommended” 2400 calories. What is more, there is not a single state in which the average figures fall below 2400. For a country that is reported to have the world’s second worst child malnutrition record based on physical indicators, this is indeed encouraging.

However, a closer look at the evidence suggests there is much cause for concern. To start with, as is to be expected, there are substantial variations in the calorie intake numbers across expenditure classes. In the rural areas it varies from 2007 calories per consumption unit per day among the poorest 10 per cent of the population ranked by per capita expenditure to 3591 calories per consumption unit for the richest 10 per cent. The corresponding figures for urban areas are 1969 and 3482 calories respectively. More than 30 per cent of the population falls below the benchmark 2400 calories per day per consumption unit intake in both rural and urban areas.

Secondly, the Planning Commission’s estimate of the required subsistence calorie intake for defining the poverty line is set at 2400 calories per person (not per consumption unit) per day in rural areas and 2100 calories per person per day in urban areas. Going by that figure at least 80 per cent of the population in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas fall below the required subsistence intake. This points to a much higher incidence of poverty in the country than reflected in estimates of the proportion of the population below the official “poverty” line. This is a feature of the evidence that has been highlighted by Professor Utsa Patnaik, who has argued that the official poverty estimates were based on an erroneous definition of poverty in which “the ‘poverty line’ was simply the original nutrition norm based poverty line of 1973 adjusted upwards by a consumer price index, without ever asking the question whether this index- adjusted ‘poverty line’ allowed people to obtain the same level of nutrition as before.” What the direct estimates of nutritional intake indicate is that poverty is much higher than such estimates, and even the new, revised poverty estimates based on the Tendulkar Committee methodology.

Thirdly, the figures depicted in the accompanying chart show that the average calorie intake per person per day has fallen overtime. It fell in the rural areas from 2256 calories to 2153 calories between 1972-73 and 1993-94, recovered to 2149 calories in 1999-2000 and then fell to a low of 2020 in 2009-10. The trend in urban areas was slightly different. Calorie intake per person per day declined marginally from 2107 to 2071 between 1972-73 and 1993-94, improved to 2156 in 1999-2000 and then fell sharply to 1946 in 2009-10. In both cases there is reason to believe that changes in the reference period adopted in the survey questionnaire for 1999-2000 tended to impart an upward bias to the estimate for that year and rendered the figure non-comparable with previous and subsequent estimates. Hence the picture seems to largely one of continuous decline in average nutritional intake.

Finally, the NSS computes figures on the extent to which nutritional intake falls short of or exceeds the level of 2700 calories per consumer unit per day. Those figures show that the calorific intake shortfall has increased over time. The percentage of consumption units in rural areas obtaining less than 80 per cent of 2700 calories (which is 2160 calories) rose from 22.7 per cent in 1993-94 to 27.6 per cent in 2004-05 and 25.8 per cent in 2009-10. In urban areas the corresponding figure rose from 26.6 per cent in 1993-94 to 28.2 per cent in 2004-05 before falling marginally to 27.7 per cent in 2009-10.

Thus, the detailed evidence on nutritional trends yielded by the NSS Survey suggests that the extent of malnutrition in India not only remains extremely high, but is also increasing over time. It is in this light that the need for a universal programme of distribution of subsidised food through a strengthened public distribution has to be assessed. The government, however, seems to be dithering over implementation of even its much diluted food security initiative on the grounds of lack of resources. There is much scope for mobilising additional resources in India, through better implementation of existing tax laws, withdrawal of unnecessary tax concessions and increases in tax rates. Rather than looking to such measures the government is focused on trimming expenditures on programmes aimed at ensuring food security and generating employment. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently stated at a conference on public distribution that he is losing sleep thinking of the rising subsidy bill on the government’s budget. Perhaps, he would do well by sparing a thought on those sleepless nights for his countrymen who go to bed without the minimum nourishment they need.