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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 30 New Delhi July 18, 2015

Food and Nutrition Aspects in India: A Growing Paradox

Monday 20 July 2015

by Abhijit Chakraborty

The recent discussion on Food and Nutrition aspects in India is related to the growing paradox in relation to the declining calorie consumption known as the calorie consumption puzzle. But the debate sometimes tries to overlook the larger problems of some select population groups and their anthropometric data in relation to calorie consumption. This paper in its limited aim has tried to figure out one such problem in the State of Kerala which is known as God’s own country; but as is seen here, all is not well there in God’s own country. The paper also tries to identify some of these problems and raises important questions in the process.

‘Hunger’, a word which provokes scientists and poets alike, is synonymous to more than one billion people around the world. The modern technological innovations and progress have been able to change the human lives but not much has been achieved in terms of eradicating hunger and malnutrition. Strangely enough, all said and done, scarcity is no more a basic problem for most nations today as far as food is concerned. Still, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), around 870 million people (12.5 per cent of the world population) were undernourished in the year 2010-2012. (FAO 2013) The production of foodgrains, on the other hand, has increased over the years, global per capita food supply rose from about 2200 kcal/day in the early 1960s to over 2800 kcal/day by 2009. (FAO 2013) So the problem is no more of scarcity but rather it is more about distribution. (Swaminathan 2002)1

Food and nutrition are vital to all human beings. The most important role these play in a modern economy is that they provide the necessary energy to bargain for labour power in an economy. In a seminal study (Dasgupta and Roy 1986 ) it was pointed out that inequality may have a strong relation to malnutrition and unemployment. A major challenge today for policy-makers in India, however, is the falling calorie consumption since 1983 to 2004-05; also this fall in calorie consumption is not being reflected in the better anthropometric data. This is being refered to in some research as the calorie consumption puzzle.2 The conundrum is what is causing this fall in consumption. This paper is divided into three sectons. The second section examines the various approaches to the calorie consumption puzzle. The third section looks at some other aspects of food security apart from the calorie consumption puzzle which sometimes remains unnoticed.

As has been pointed out, there is a drop in the calorie consumption and specially of cereals. Cereal consumption has been falling over time, according to the National Sample Survey (NSS) data. There has been a steady decline in cereal consumption over time both in the rural areas as well as in the urban areas. As can be seen from Figure 1, the cereal consumption has fallen from 18 per cent to 12 per cent in the rural areas and from 10 per cent to 7.3 per cent in the urban areas. (NSS 68th Round) The above fall in calorie norm is also significant since the stipulated calorie norm specified in defining the poverty line as the minimum calorie requirement is not being met (Sen 2005) which adds to the puzzle further. This can be further observed from Table 1 (on p. 31).

Figure 1

Source: Calculation based on NSS data 68th round

Now the larger issue is: if people are consuming less calorie by choice it should reflect in better anthropometric data for the country. But unfortunately the overall child malnutrition and undernutrition levels are still very high although these have declined over the years. (Deaton and Dreze 2009) There are basically four approaches to understand the calorie consumption puzzle at present. One of the foremost is put forward by Utsa Patnaik (Patnaik 2004) who claims that there is actually no calorie consumption puzzle. According to her, people are too impoverished to buy the right amount of calories. The other proposition has been put forward by Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and Esther Duflo who claim that as income increases, people would prefer not to buy just the amount of calories required or more but rather they would prefer to buy better tasting calories. (Banerjee and Duflo 2011) The third proposition is put forward by Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze (Deaton and Dreze 2009) who claim that there is a possibility of a declining calorie need of people due to occupational diversification. The last propostion is being put forward by Deepankar Basu and Amit Bhosle (Basu and Bhosle 2012) who claim on the lines of Pronab Sen (Sen 2005) that there is possibly a Food Budget squeeze. This Food Budget squeeze has occured due to increase in spending on the non-food essential items such as education, healthcare, transportation, fuel and lighting.

The concern here is whether the propositions put forward are the only answers to the calorie consumption puzzle and therefore recommend solutions on the same lines. A very puzzling case is in the district of Pallakad of the State of Kerala: in spite of having a very low infant mortality rate, the district has some of the worst malnutrion experiences. A recent report in one of the leading monthly magazines (Outlook 2013) pointed out that a village known as Attapady in Pallakad district in Kerala has been lying in the grip of malnutrition and under-nutrition for a very long period. It was found that as many as 35 children have died in the last six months in Attapady. Malnutrition is very high among the Irulla tribal families that reside there. This is strange due to the reason that Pallakad district has a very low level of Infant Mortality Rate (IMR). According to the the State Human Development Report 2005, Pallakad district had an IMR of 12 (SHDR 2005) which is lower than the all-India average; on the contrary in the same district more than 35 children have died in the last six months.3

 The tribal population in our country lags behind in terms of various social indicators. The tribal population even in Kerala is facing the same perilious situation as is evident in Attapady. For instance, Kerala has very low rural poverty compared to the all-India average, but the same State has very high poverty among the Scheduled Tribes—41 per cent as compared to 44 per cent at the all India level (IHDR 2011), as can be seen from the figure below.

Food and Nutrition aspects in India have to concentrate the focus on select population groups and try to understand their specific needs.4 Unless that is done, there is a danger of oversimplifying things. As seen from the State of Kerala, it has some of the best social indicators but when it comes to the select population groups, such as the Scheduled Tribes, it presents a different picture. The proportion of children consuming inadeqaute amount of protein and calories was the highest in the State of Kerala when it came to the tribal population. (NNMB Tribal Report 2009) The NHFS-3 similarly points out that at the all India level the Scheduled Tribes and Castes are more susceptible to stunting and underweight. (Deaton and Dreze 2009)

According to the National Nutrition and Monitoring Board (NNMB), Kerala had the lowest cereal consumption among tribals; it was 330 g/day which is around 9.90 kg/month in 2009-10. (NNMB Tribal Report) Interstingly enough, in the same period these levels are again higher than the entire State of Kerala under consideration that consumed around 8.79 kg/month. (NSS 66th round) Can these figures have larger implications for the calorie consumption puzzle? We need to ask these questions also as this might be able to bring a larger connection in the missing link. Table 1 (in the preceding page) shows the consumption of various items among the tribal population in various States.

The interesting point is that when we compare the State of Kerala with the rest of India it is found that its nutrition-related indicators are quite good, for instance, the proportion of women with severe or moderate anemia is only seven per cent in Kerala considering the all India average of 16.8 per cent. (Sen and Dreze 2013) In the same period the percentage of women having anaemia is 51.9 per cent among the Scheduled Tribe population. The same is seen in case of the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI happens to be a very important indicator of health, a low BMI indicates undernourishment in the population. The proportion of women, aged 15-49, with low BMI was 18 per cent in 2005-2006 in the State of Kerala. In the same year the percentage of women with low BMI was 41.7 per cent for the Sheduled Tribe population. (Dreze and Sen 2013) Clearly something is going awfully wrong. Kerala has good social indicators but is found lacking when it comes to its tribal population. The factors responsible for the undernutrition in Kerala among the Irrula tribal families might require us to dig deep inside. One of the reasons put forward is the migration of people in the area and lack of opportunities for the indigeneous tribal population. (Outlook 2013) Is it then the only explanation for such injustice? Or is it quite natural for a country, where social injustice is a byproduct of the trickle-down policy of the government? (Roy 12)

The government has very recently launched the Food Security Bill which will provide food to the population. The government has decided to provide rice, wheat and millet at Rs 3/2/1 respectively to 75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population; but how far would this be able to solve the above mentioned problem for the specific population of the Scheduled Tribes? That is the real question. We must also keep in mind that it is not really calories which are only important but it is also the nutrients. (Banerjee and Dufflo 2010) The intra-family distribution of hungeris also an important indicator of malnutrition since intra-family distribution of hunger plays a major role in deciding malnutrition and undernutrition. As Pranab Bardhan notes, in much of “India’s food culture the allocation of food is quite often in accordance with the two-dimensional size of different family members”. (Bardhan 1974)

The Food Security Bill might be able to provide the masses with the required calorie but not enough nutrients to come out of the ‘nutrition trap’. So when the government takes larger decisions on food and nutrition, it should take into consideration specific population groups. The calorie consumption puzzle might be a big problem today but the other aspects of food security must also be kept in mind. The effective functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS) in various States as well as its delivery mechanism must be given due consideration. It might be the failure of the delivery mechanism which is responsible for the plight that is being witnessed in Kerala.


Bardhan, Pranab (1974), On Life and Death Questions’, EPW, Vol 9, No. 32/34.

Basu, Deepankar and Bhosle, Amit (2012), ‘The Calorie Consumption Puzzle in India: An Empirical Investigation’, PERI Working paper Series No. 285.

Dasgupta, Partha and Ray, Debraj (1986), ‘Inequality as a Determinant of Malnutrition and Unemployment Theory’, Economic Journal, 96.

Deaton, Angus and Dreze, Jean (2009), ‘Food and Nutrition in India: Facts and Interpretations’, EPW, Vol 44, No 7.

Sen, Pronab (2005), ‘Of Calories and Things: Reflections on Nutritional Norms, Poverty Lines and Consumption Behaviour in India’, EPW, Vol 40, No. 43.

Swaminathan, Madhura (2002),‘Excluding the Needy: The Public Provisioning of Food in India’, EPW, Vol 30, No. 3/4.

Patnaik, Utsa (2004), The republic of hunger’, Social Scientist, 32(9/10)

Patnaik, Utsa (2007), Neoliberalism and rural poverty in India’, EPW, Vol 42, No. 30.

Patnaik, Utsa (2010a), ‘A critical look at some propositions on consumption and poverty’, EPW, Vol 45, No. 6.

Outlook (2013), ‘Leech Fields’, July 29.


Banerjee, Abhijit V. and Duflo, Esther (2011), Poor Economics, Random House, India.

Roy, Arundhati (2012), Broken republic, Penguin, India.

Sen, Amartya and Dreze, Jean (2013), An Uncertain Glory India and its Contradictions, Penguin Allen Lane, India.


National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (2009), ‘Diet and Nutritional Status of Tribal Population and Prevalence of Hypertension among Adults—Report on Second Repeat Survey’,National Institute of Nutrition,( ICMR), Hyderabad.

India Human Development Report (2011), Towards Social Inclusion’, Institute of Applied Manpower Research, OUP, India.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (2013), Statistical Year Book World Food and Agriculture, Rome.

 NSSO (2011-2012), Level and Pattern of Consumer Expenditure, Report Number 555, NSS 68th Round, National Statistical Office, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India.


1. Swaminathan brings out the possibility of distribution problem for India and also states the possible solution for food security in India in the article.

2. A term being coined to understand the divergence between Mean per capita expenditure and falling calorie.

3. There may be many such unreported cases in other parts of the country. In the heartland of the country the tribal population is being subjected to such injustice which has forced them into a war today. (Roy Arundhati 2012, Broken republic, Penguin, India)

4. This is important since all population groups might have their own specific needs as nutrition is a diverse subject. Also given the colonial legacy that India had, as noted in a study by Angus Deaton, The Great Escape and the Origins of Inequality, Chapter 4, India had the worst anthropometric data for the pre-independence period.

The author is presently pursuing his Ph.D from the Department of Economics, University of North Bengal.