By Raavi Aggarwal
Edited by, Anandita Malhotra, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
On the one hand, India has witnessed staggering levels of malnutrition and widespread impoverishment but on the other hand, there has been a noticeable increase in adult obesity levels in the recent decade. Despite an adequate stock of food grains in the country, millions of people starve each day, possibly due to inefficient government policies, low incomes or even a general unwillingness to eat.
According to the National Family Health Survey conducted in 1998-99, 47 per cent of Indian children below age three are underweight, 52 per cent of adult of adult women are anemic and 36 per cent have a body mass index below 18.5 which is generally the threshold minimum for being well nourished. To add to this startling fact, it has been observed that the per-capita calorie intake in rural India has declined from 2221 kcal/day in 1983-84 to 2149 in 1999-2000 despite an overall increase in per capita incomes in rural India since the 1980s. These seemingly paradoxical occurrences have puzzled policymakers and ushered them to ponder over their fundamental understanding of the relationship between the level of income and calorie intake.
Does a rise in income imply a commensurate increase in calorie intake and a further enhancement of nutrition? It has been largely accepted that once incomes increase sufficiently, the marginal increment in calorie intake gradually declines. As people get richer, they opt to diversify to “better-tasting” and more expensive foods. This has been reflected in a virtual increase in the ratio of food expenditure to income. Yet this only holds for the middle and upper income classes. This simple presumption cannot be applied to the lower income households and the voices of the poor ought to be incorporated into policy design. Oftentimes, policymakers assume the poor make rational decisions and highly optimize the utilization of their resources. But recent field studies have shown that the poor not only prioritize food consumption but also entertainment, alcohol and value the material luxuries of life like any other ordinary human.
In a recent survey conducted on under-nutrition levels in low income households, a question was posed enquiring about whether individuals felt they were well nourished given their levels of income. They responded in the affirmative but anthropometric measures showed a stark level of under-nutrition in the community. Moreover, the largest proportion of their calorie intake was attributable to carbohydrates in the form of subsidized cereals and a small portion of lentils but a
paucity of fruits and vegetables. This led to the conclusion that their definition of “well-nourished” was equivalent to filling their stomachs with grain rather than a wholesome and balanced diet. It can then be extrapolated that there is a lack of awareness among the poor of the significance of a diversified diet, specifically the importance of micro nutrients which are indispensable for the prevention of a multitude of diseases.
These eye-opening observations make one ponder over whether the calorie norm is the most appropriate measure of nutrition. While calorie intake does indeed strongly influence nutrition levels, other factors ought to be incorporated to create a composite measure for nutrition. Sanitation levels and cleanliness of environments can have a significant impact on the incidence of disease within a community. Moreover, the prevalence of stagnant water, a common breeding ground for vectors, can generate endemic diseases but can easily be omitted from government surveys. Further, overall “well-being” and “quality of life” of an individual would not only account for the bare necessities but also factor in mental health and emotional well-being. In addition, greater research through field-work and incorporation of the poor’s opinions, expectations and their individual rationalities would help policymakers create theories that would better conform to observable behaviour and thus produce more efficacious results.
Raavi Aggarwal is a third year student of Economics at Miranda House, with an ardent desire to pursue Development studies at the postgraduate level. She is a fervent advocate of socialist economic planning and believes human resource development is a prerequisite to mitigating poverty in developing countries. Apart from academics, she is a zealous lover of the performing arts and is herself engaged in Western Music (Violin) and Jazz and Contemporary dance.
 Food and Nutrition, Jean Dreze, 2012
 Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, 2011