The Indian economy has recently grown at historically unprecedented rates and is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Real GDP per head grew at 3.95 percent a year from 1980 to 2005, and at 5.4 percent a year from 2000 to 2005. Measured at international prices, real per capita income in India, which was two-thirds of Kenya’s in 1950, and about the same as Nigeria’s, is now two and a half times as large as per capita income in both countries. Real per capita consumption has also grown rapidly, at 2.2 percent a year in the 1980s, at 2.5 percent a year in the 1990s, and at 3.9 percent a year from 2000 to 2005. Although the household survey data show much slower rates of per capita consumption growth than do these national accounts estimates, even these slower growth rates are associated with a substantial decrease in poverty since the early 1980s, Deaton and Drèze (2002), Himanshu (2007). Yet, per capita calorie intake is declining, as is the intake of many other nutrients; indeed fats are the only major nutrient group whose per capita consumption is unambiguously increasing. Today, more than three quarters of the population live in households whose per capita calorie consumption is less than 2,100 in urban areas and 2,400 in rural areas – numbers that are often cited as “minimum requirements” in India. A related concern is that anthropometric indicators of nutrition in India, for both adults and children, are among the worst in the world. Furthermore, the improvement of these measures of nutrition appears to be slow relative to what might be expected in the light of international experience and of India’s recent high rates of economic growth. Indeed, according to the National Family Health Survey, the proportion of underweight children remained virtually unchanged between 1998-99 and 2005-06 (from 47 to 46 percent for the age group of 0-3 years). 2 Undernutrition levels in India remain higher even than for most countries of sub-Saharan Africa, even though those countries are currently much poorer than India, have grown much more slowly, and have much higher levels of infant and child mortality. In this paper, we do not attempt to provide a complete and fully documented story of poverty, nutrition and growth in India. In fact, we doubt that such an account is currently possible. Instead, our aim is to present the most important facts, to point to a number of unresolved puzzles, and to present an outline of a coherent story that is consistent with the facts. As far as the decline in per capita calorie consumption is concerned, our leading hypothesis, on which much work remains to be done, is that while real incomes and real wages have increased (leading to some nutritional improvement), there has been an offsetting reduction in calorie requirements, due to declining levels of physical activity and possibly also to various improvements in the health environment. The net effect has been a slow reduction in per capita calorie consumption. Whatever the explanation, there is historical evidence of related episodes in other countries, for example in Britain from 1775 to 1850, where in spite of rising real wages, there was no apparent increase in the real consumption of food, Clark et al (1995). Per capita calorie consumption also appears to have declined in contemporary China in the 1980s and 1990s (a period of rapid improvement in nutrition indicators such as height and weight), see Du, Lu, Zhai and Popkin (2002). One of our main points is that, just as there is no tight link between incomes and calorie consumption, there is no tight link between the numbers of calories consumed and nutritional or health status. Although the number of calories is important, so are other factors, such as a balanced diet containing a reasonable proportion of fruits, vegetables, and fats, not just calories from cereals, as are factors that affect the need for and retention of calories, such as activity 3 levels, clean water, sanitation, good hygiene practices, and vaccinations. Because of changes in these other factors, the fact that people are increasingly choosing away from a diet that is heavy in cereals does not imply that nutritional status will automatically get worse. Nor should a reduction in calories associated with lower activity levels be taken to mean that Indians are currently adequately nourished; nothing could be further from the truth. We start by documenting the decline in per capita calorie consumption (Section 2.1), as well as the state of malnutrition (Section 2.2). We then look at possible reasons for the reduction in calories (Section 3.1), and try to tease out how it fits into the general picture of economic growth and malnutrition in India (Section 3.2). Section 4 concludes. We emphasize at the outset that our analysis covers the period up to 2006, so that we do not discuss what has happened to calorie consumption or to nutritional status in the subsequent two years, during which there has been a marked increase in the price of food, both in India and around the world.
In spite of India’s rapid economic growth, there has been a sustained decline in per capita calorie consumption during the last twenty-five years. While the decline has been largest among better-off households, it has taken place throughout the range of household per capita total expenditure. For both adults and children, anthropometric indicators of nutritional status in India are among the worst in the world. While these indicators have shown improvement over time, the rate of progress is slow relative to what might be expected based on international and historical experience. This paper presents the basic facts about growth, poverty and nutrition in India, it points to a number of puzzles, and it sketches a preliminary story that is consistent with the evidence. The reduction in calorie consumption cannot be attributed to declining real incomes, nor to any increase in the relative price of food. Our leading hypothesis, on which much work remains to be done, is that, as real incomes and wages have increased, leading to some nutritional improvement, there has been an offsetting reduction in calorie requirements due to declining levels of physical activity and possibly also to various improvements in the health environment. If correct, this analysis does not imply that Indians are currently adequately nourished; nothing could be further from the truth. Calorie intake has serious limitations as a nutritional intake; while calories are extremely important, there are too many sources of variation in calorie requirements for standard, invariant, calorie-norms to be usefully applied to large sections of the population. We conclude with a plea for better, and more regular, monitoring of nutritional status in India.
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