New data on calorie intakes

Print edition : February 27, 1999

New NSS data show that nutritional intake per person in India has fallen since the early 1970s. In Kerala and West Bengal, however, despite low intake levels, the trend is one of progress.

IMPORTANT new nutritional data on the calorie intake per person per day in India's 17 most populous States have recently been released by the National Sample Survey (NSS) Organisation. The most salient feature of the new data is the deeply disturbing finding that, at the all-India level, average calorie intake declined steadily in rural and urban areas between 1972-73 and 1993-94.

In rural India, average calorie intake fell from 2,266 Kcals in 1972-73 to 2,221 in 1983 and to 2,153 in 1993-94. In urban India, the average intake was lower than in rural India. At the same time, the reduction in intake was smaller in urban India than in rural India; intake went down from 2,107 Kcals in 1972-73 to 2,089 in 1983 and 2071 in 1993-94.

There were, however, exceptions to the overall trend of decline in calorie intake. There were only two States in which the calorie intake per person increased between 1972-73 and 1993-94 in rural and urban areas: Kerala and West Bengal. West Bengal's performance was noteworthy in two respects. First, calorie intake per person improved in rural and urban areas between 1983 and 1993-94 and over the longer period 1972-1993. Secondly, calorie intake per person in West Bengal, which was below the national average in 1972-73, moved to a position above the national average in 1993-94.

In West Bengal, land reform and a democratic system of panchayats - one that actually represents the rural poor - triggered the highest levels of agricultural growth in India in the 1980s and early 1990s.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The new data on nutritional intakes are from a paper titled "A Note on Nutritional Intake in India: NSS-50th Round (July 1993 to June 1994)", published in Sarvekshana, the journal of the NSS Organisation (Vol. XXI, No. 2, 73rd Issue; dated October-December 1997, although recently released). The paper provides data from the 50th Round of the NSS as well as comparative material from the 27th Round, conducted in 1972-73, and the 38th Round, conducted in 1983.Sarvekshana also contains information on the components of consumption and disparities in consumption across income classes. The data on average calorie intakes and changes in intakes are illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 and Figures 3 and 4 respectively.

Between 1972-73 and 1983, the only States in which the average calorie intake per person in rural areas rose were Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa and West Bengal. In the next decade, 1983 to 1993-94, the average calorie intake in rural areas rose in only three States - Kerala, West Bengal and Orissa. If the entire period (that is, 1972-73 to 1993-94) is considered, calorie intake per person rose in the rural areas of four States - Kerala, West Bengal, Orissa and Maharashtra. The largest absolute increase in calorie consumption per person per day was in Kerala (406 Kcal); Kerala was followed by West Bengal (290 Kcal), Orissa (204 Kcal) and Maharashtra (44 Kcal). In West Bengal and Orissa, the average intake per person moved from below the all-India average in 1972-73 and 1983 to a level above the all-India average in 1993-94. The average intakes in Kerala and Maharashtra were, however, below the national average in all years.

In urban India too, average calorie intake fell between 1972-73 and 1983 and fell again between 1983 and 1993-94. Between 1972-73 and 1983, the only States for which NSS data showed a rise in average urban calorie intake were Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. NSS data record an increase in calorie intakes between 1983 and 1993-94 in the urban areas of a larger number of States, including Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. With respect to the period 1972-73 to 1993-94 as a whole, however, calorie intake per person in urban areas rose in only five States, namely, Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Again, the largest absolute increase in calorie consumption per person per day was in Kerala (243 Kcal); Kerala was followed by Karnataka (101 Kcal) and West Bengal (51 Kcal).

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Another noteworthy feature of the NSS data is that in the rural areas of four States - Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir - average calorie intake fell by more than 600 Kcal per person per day (in Punjab, the fall was actually of the magnitude of 1,075 Kcal per person per day). The decline in nutritional intake was thus steepest in States where initial levels of calorie consumption were the highest in India.

The data on urban areas also shows a sharp reduction in nutritional intake in the States where initial consumption levels were highest (including Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh).

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THE KERALA "PARADOX"

NSS data show Kerala as being a State where average intakes are low and below the national average. Data from the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB), another important source of information on nutritional intakes in certain States of India, also suggest that actual consumption in Kerala is low. (The NNMB data also corroborate the NSS finding that actual consumption in Kerala has, in contrast with other States, risen.)

At the same time, an unfailing feature of the data on nutritional outcomes in India is that, by almost any nutritional criterion, the people of Kerala are better nourished than people elsewhere in India. The National Family Health Survey of 1992-93, for example, estimated the extent of child malnutrition among children in the age group 0-4 years. As can be seen from Figure 5, the incidence of severe child malnutrition is clearly the lowest in Kerala. According to NNMB data, Kerala does better than other States with respect to age-wise mean anthropometric evidence (height, weight, arm circumference, and related measures) and clinical signs of nutritional deficiency in children.

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There have been different attempts to explain this apparent paradox between low intakes and relatively favourable nutritional outcomes. One expert, C. R. Soman, has suggested that in Kerala, "nutrients are better utilised, quite possibly because of the positive interaction between health care and nutrition." In addition, high levels of education enhanced health-seeking behaviour and nutrition information among the people.

There could be other explanations as well. One is that the paradox may, in fact, be an illusion. NSS questionnaires may underestimate consumption in Kerala because they do not capture adequately the very diverse components of diets in the State. Another explanation is that the allocation of food within the household can be assumed to be less inequitable in Kerala than elsewhere. Nutritional outcomes may thus be better than average intake data suggest.

FOR all the problems of the data, the unambiguous trend in Kerala and West Bengal in respect of food intake has been one of progress and not regression. The new material from the NSS adds to the growing body of evidence on how public policy initiated by the Left in Kerala and West Bengal has helped make life "a little better" for the poor and very poor and to have done so despite the fact that incomes in these States are low.

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Land reform was implemented relatively early in Kerala. The State also has India's most effective system for the public distribution of food as well as high levels of school education and a widespread public health system. These are among the factors that have helped create mass health and nutritional outcomes in the State that are better and better distributed than elsewhere in the country.

In West Bengal, land reform and a democratic system of panchayats - one that actually represents the rural poor - triggered the highest levels of agricultural growth in India in the 1980s and early 1990s. As a consequence of these policies, there was a reduction in income poverty in rural West Bengal. Economists C.P. Chandrasekhar and Abhijit Sen have shown that, among the 15 most populous States of India, the decline in the proportion of the rural population under the poverty line between 1977-78 and 1993-94 was the highest in West Bengal (Frontline, February 23, 1996). The new NSS data now show that the results of rural change in West Bengal are being felt in the sphere of actual food consumption as well.

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