One of the more startling, but less discussed, features
of Indian development over the past several decades,
is the decline in per capita calories consumption
which is revealed by the official National Sample
Surveys. Average calorie consumption in India was
already low by international standards, and that it
has actually declined despite apparently high aggregate
economic growth rates is clearly something that merits
much more attention.
Of course, the most recent data that we have on calories
consumption, from the 55th Round of the
NSS, is unfortunately not comparable with data emanating
from the earlier rounds. This has been discussed at
length in this column as well as by Abhijit Sen (2001,
2002) so we will not dwell on it further here. However,
it does mean that, along with estimates of consumption
expenditure, estimates of food consumption are likely
to be overestimates when compared to the earlier rounds.
Nevertheless, even these (relatively) inflated data
indicates a decline in per capita calorie consumption
for rural India in 1999-2000, as shown in Chart 1.
The more significant trend, of course, is the long-term
decline since the early 1970s. In addition, there
is what appears to be a convergence between rural
and urban patterns of calorie consumption by the most
1 >> Click
Indeed, in 1999-2000, the estimates of per capita
calorie consumption in urban India were higher than
for rural India, at 2156 Kcalories per day compared
to 2149. This is surprising given the perception that
the rural population tends to consume more calories
because of the greater intensity of work in rural
The pattern in overall calories consumption is mirrored
in per capita protein consumption, which is shown
in Chart 2. Here also, rural areas have experienced
a substantial decline from the early 1980s in particular.
This decline has extended up to 1999-2000 even though
the estimate for that period may be higher relative
to the earlier rounds because of the change in pattern
of questioning. Meanwhile, urban protein consumption
appears to have increased, to the point of convergence.
2 >> Click
Chart 3, which describes trends in per capita fat
consumption, actually indicate an increase over time
for both rural and urban areas. This is part of a
diversification in food consumption that does certainly
appear to have occurred on average over the past decades.
Overall, while cereal consumption seems to have fallen
as a share of total calories, within the category
there has been a shift from the so-called "inferior
grains" to rice and wheat, especially among the
3 >> Click
The range of non-cereal foods has diversified, with
the greater significance of milk products (which would
contain more fat) as well as edible oils, along with
fruits and vegetables. The current patterns of food
consumption for rural and urban India are indicated
in Charts 4 and 5. It should be remembered that these
are the aggregate tendencies and that there are significant
variations across expenditure classes.
4 >> Click
5 >> Click
There has been some discussion on how to interpret
the long-term tendency towards declining per capita
calorie consumption, especially in rural India. One
argument that is frequently made is that the early
NSS Rounds, including those of the 1970s and early
1980s, tended to overestimate calories (and especially
food grain) consumption. This is then extended to
argue that the subsequent estimates are mere corrections
that give a closer approximation to reality.
Even if this were the case, there are still other
questions to ponder. In rural India, it seems to be
fairly clear that per capita calorie consumption fell
over the period after the early 1980s, including in
the period when all the estimates suggest (without
controversy) that the incidence of absolute poverty
was on the decline.
Some explanations of this trend have rested on the
idea that this reflects a natural and positive change
in dietary patterns, consequent upon the change in
rural work patterns and life styles. Thus, Hanumantha
Rao has argued that the increasing mechanisation of
agricultural operations as well as the greater availability
of mechanised transport has reduced the amount of
manual labour and physical activity related to transport
that is required in most of rural India. He suggests
that this has meant a reduction in the biological
requirement of energy.
Similarly, it has been argued that the increasing
"urbanisation" of rural areas has meant
that urban lifestyles have penetrated into rural areas,
and have influenced the narrowing down of rural-urban
differences in food consumption. This is used to explain
the convergence in calorie consumption as well. However,
it should be noted here that the convergence that
appears at the aggregate level does not appear when
the population is disaggregated according to expenditure
classes. Indeed, the top 30 per cent in the urban
areas appear to be consuming substantially more calories
at the end of the period, even while the bottom 30
per cent do not show such an increase.
These arguments all relate to the notion of a "norm"
of calorie consumption, which has itself come under
question. Of course, a minimum calorie consumption
line has been used in India since the 1950s to determine
the food consumption necessary for survival, and this
has then been used to derive "poverty lines"
based on consumer expenditure patterns. But several
decades ago, P. V. Sukhatme had argued that such rigid
norms were not valid, since the human body has adaptation
mechanisms with different metabolic properties for
those with lower body weights. In other words, those
who already weigh less could also require less calories
per day, even to do similar kinds of work.
In India the norm that has been conventionally used
is that of 2400 calories per day (for a rural male
engaged in moderate activity). The norm specified
by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for
South Asia as a whole is much lower, at 2110 calories
per day. The FAO has an even lower cut-off for its
"lowest range of food requirement" of only
1810 calories per day.
The FAO has in fact brought down its calorie norms
over time, reflecting factors such as those mentioned
by Hanumantha Rao, as well as the reduced incidence
of certain types of disease that also has reduced
the need for the body to build up resistance to it.
There are also social and cultural factors involved.
This is even apparent in regional variations in India,
where it is clear that the median requirement of calories
in states like Gujurat or Tamil Nadu seems to be much
lower then in Punjab or Haryana.