Let Them Eat Gobi

It seems the Planning Commission exists on a planet which is so far removed from anything we might call the real world, that one begins to wonder whether its staff have not been born, bred and spent the entirety of their lives within the corridors of Yojana Bhavan, with tubes up their noses for nutrition. How else does one make sense of new figures released by the Tendulkar Committee according to which an income of 560 rupees per month in urban India and 368 rupees per month in rural India is enough to fulfill a person’s daily nutritional needs (2,100 calories urban; 2,400 calories rural). This can only mean one of two things: either the Planning Commission has invented a time machine whereby everyone can access food at 1980 prices, or they have simply gone insane.

The Plan panel’s estimate for 2004-05 was based on the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey finding that said an income of Rs 560 per month was enough to purchase 2,100 calories of nutrition in urban areas and an income of Rs 368 per month was enough to purchase 2,400 calories of nutrition in rural areas.

This is from today’s Indian Express. What on earth does this even mean? And exactly how does this amount purchase anything close to an adequate meal? This is sounding more and more like that bizarre ad that MacDonald’s came up with a few years ago, “Yeh Dada ke zaamane ke bhav hain.” Exactly what price indices are those responsible for coming up with these figures basing their estimates on? And exactly how much food per day is 2,100 calories? Here’s a sample menu I found on the net which is exactly 2,100 calories:

Morning: 1-2 cups tea or coffee ( no added sugar)

Breakfast: 3 slices bread ( large size)
1 egg and cheese omelette
1 cup papaya
1 cup tea/coffee with a little milk no sugar

Midmorning: 1 apple medium

Lunch: ½ cup strained soup
2 wheat chapaties
1 cup mutton pulav (60gms mutton)
½ cup cooked bhindi
½ cup rajmah
1 cup dahi ( skimmed milk)
Salad
2 teaspoon oil/ghee for cooking

Afternoon tea: 1 dosa medium size
1/2 cup fresh fruit yoghurt
1 cup tea/coffee with little milk (no sugar)

Dinner: 2 jowari chapaties
1 cup (pea) vatana pulav
1 cup ( cluster beans) gawar bhaji
2 V Grilled fish (2 pieces, 60 gms)
½ cup dahi ( skim milk base)
Salad
2 teaspoon oil/ghee for cooking

Bedtime: ½ cup whole milk

This is what a 2,100 calorie diet looks like. Thats a lot of food. Accepted this is a ‘balanced’ diet, represented by all food groups with luxuries like meat, fish, coffee, fruit and dairy, but even if you get rid of all of that, you are still left with dal, vegetables, wheat and rice. And what do they cost? Since the members of the Planning Commission clearly don’t know, let me give them a small sample. These are all approximate figures:

Wheat – 20 rupees per kilo, 1 person consumes roughly 3 kilos a month. Thats 60 rupees on wheat alone.
Rice – 30 rupees a kilo
Dal – 90 rupees per kilo: I kilo will feed 4 people for 3 meals.
Eggs – 48 rupees a dozen
Oil – 120 rupees per litre
Sugar – 40 rupees per kilo
Vegetables run between 30 and 60 rupees per kilo. Half a kilo will feed between two to three people for one meal.
Tamatar – 30
Gobhi- 20
Green vegs – 20
Onions- 20-25

In exactly which universe of cornocopic abundance can anyone consume the apparently vast quantum of food it takes to arrive at the magical figure of 2,100 calories per day with an income of 560 per month? Or perhaps half a meal every three days, is what the Commission thinks the poor are entitled to. I am clearly no economist or statistician. But you don’t have to be to see that these figures are completely mad. You simply have to walk to any nearby market and enquire after the price of things. Unless the Planning Commission is planning to distribute compressed meals in the form of pills, such as those that astronauts eat in spaceships, to the urban poor, I am unsure of how they think 560 rupees can buy anyone anything.

But it gets even more bizarre.

The committee has defined the poor based on a normative living standard — it has moved away from calorie intake as the criterion and considered per capita consumption expenditure on commodities and services.

So now it seems, that in fact the Committee thinks that not only is 560 rupees enough to buy food, but its enough to also access commodities and services. The problem with traditional poverty-line estimates has been not only that they clearly have no idea of how much food costs, but that caloric intake is not an accurate assessment of quality of life in any way. Till this new report, the definition of poverty rested on whether an individual was able to buy/consume 650 grams of foodgrains per day. People don’t just sit and eat. And that food is not waiting for them, laid out for ready consumption. Living, life, requires all sorts of other things: getting from one place to another, wearing clothes, shelter, access to medical care, to water, to education for children. Now it seems the Tendulkar Committee thinks all of these other things are also possible within 560 rupees.

And even by this convoluted logic 37% of Indians are poor.

The poverty ratio or the number of poor as a percentage of total population in India for 2004-05 is estimated at 37.2 per cent, according to a new report submitted on Tuesday by the Suresh Tendulkar committee to Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

The good news is, that from an initial estimate of 77%, the number of poor people in India have magically reduced to 37%. How simple it is! Simply juggle the poverty indices, so as more and more people have less and less access to the basic conditions of life, the vast majority of Indians are nonetheless doing better and better! Which then brings us to the gut-wrenching question: how are the vast majority of people in this country managing to live at all?

Perhaps I have got this completely wrong. I hope I have, and maybe someone who understands statistics better than me will explain this…

20 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Gobi”

  1. Dear Arti,
    Great job and calculations! Can you infom us how landless laboureres are paid in UP in Bihar for a days work? I am a studen in DU and i was told by my teacher that they are paid some 3 Kgs of rice for a days work? It would be great if you could also include the reality of rural india. That would emphasise your point greatly! Great job…beautifully written and researched! Keep up th good work.

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  2. Sweety, I don’t really know. This is not my area of work, and the post is not researched in any way, which is part of the problem. Its simply responding to a newsreport in the Indian Express. What we really need is an economist to unpack these figures for us. There are several debates on fixing poverty line estimates between economists, and on the Planning Commission website, which you can find on the net.

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    1. Respected Arti Sethi ji ,
      You have done a miraculous job by exposing the rulers . It is a matter of shame that the present Indian rulers are worst than the ex British rulers . The present rulers are parasite on the Indian economy . Before 1992 A.D. Punjab assembly election , the first three fore front seats of the government buses were reserved for the M.L.As. and M.Ps. But the Punjab assembly passed Tata Sumos for the M.L.As. with petrol free of cost and big amounts in lacs for the purchase of kothis . The Punjab assembly is looting the government treasury in every session by passing facilities for the legislature , executive and judiciary at the cost of the poor masses . Its speaker is facing the corruption charges findings by the CBI . Both the present chief minister and the ex chief minister with families and ministers are facing corruption charge in the courts . The present government captured some stockists with even more than 20,000 boris of sugar from a single stockist but the action was nothing against these illegal stockists as the government represents the capitalists and big land lords .

      The president of India`s salary was Rs. 42,000/- which is now Rs. 1,25,000/- per month . I think the the president of India is the Governor General of India .
      The poor farmers and consumers are being exploited by the capitalists and their governments .
      WE MUST NOT LET THEM EXPLOIT THE POOR INDIANS ECONOMICALLY EVEN AT THE COST OF OUR LIVES !!!!!

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  3. Well to be honest aarti ji, you have done a better job than an economist…(with all due respect to their sacred community)….560 rupees a month!!!! or in other words, about 19 rupees a day (18.6 to be precise)…..I seriously have no answers how one can manage a house and education with that money….food….may be the Planning commissions had The Hindu canteen in mind!!!!! food for a rupee…lets see…..but in that case, wouldn’t the labourers who work for NREGA (i mean the few who get paid for it) become upper class? In my village in Bihar, the labourers were getting 80 rupees a day….

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  4. Dear Sweety,I think DU teachers are out of touch from India but real story of UP is that laboureres are getting 70 rupees par day so you can think where we reached in 63 year time,gods only can save poor people.

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  5. Dear Aarti

    Excellent post.

    Here I would like to share a report which appeared in a section of the press where a govt appointed N.C. Saxena committee itself had ‘nearly doubled the no of poor in the country’:

    (The Telegraph, 28 Sep 2009, Count puts poverty at 50%, riles govt)

    New Delhi, Sept. 20: At least half the country’s rural population lives in poverty, a government-appointed expert panel has said, nearly doubling the Planning Commission’s estimate that 28 per cent of Indian villagers are poor.

    The Centre, however, appears likely to go by the plan panel’s figures rather than the N.C. Saxena committee’s higher count which, if adopted, will enormously hike expenditure on anti-poverty schemes by adding crores to the list of beneficiaries.

    The irony is that the government itself had appointed the Saxena committee to work out new criteria to decide which households lived below the poverty line.

    Asked about the possibility of implementing the Saxena report, handed in last month, rural development minister C.P. Joshi said: “The Saxena committee was not asked to count the poor but to develop a methodology to identify the poor.’’

    ..
    However, junking the panel’s figures would amount to rejecting the suggested criteria too. For, the panel’s figures are based on the new criteria it has suggested in its report, as well as data from state governments and the food ministry.

    The committee has suggested five exclusion criteria for the 2009 below-poverty-line (BPL) survey: average per head spending over Rs 1,000 a month in urban areas and Rs 700 in rural areas; or ownership of a pucca house, or two-wheeler, or mechanised farm implement like a tractor, or landholding above the district average.

    The Planning Commission, however, went by a different cutoff for average per head spending — Rs 356 a month in rural areas and Rs 539 a month in urban areas. One other criterion it used was daily calorie intake: 2,400 kilocalories in villages and 2,100 for urban areas.

    Its figure of 28 per cent poor is the same as that obtained by using the old BPL criteria, fixed during the previous survey in 2002, which the Saxena panel was tasked to revise.

    The Planning Commission has written to Saxena saying: “Fixing the BPL percentage at 50 per cent will have tremendous financial implications and once granted it cannot be reduced….’’

    The Saxena committee has cited food ministry data, which mention 10.5 crore BPL cards in the country. This would already account for roughly 53 crore poor — nearly half the population — it says. …

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  6. Accepted, 560/360 Rs per month calculation is too low.

    But I found some probs with your post.

    Like, why do you compare with the “balanced diet” here?? 99% of Indians dont eat even half of that many items per day… Its like a crorepati guy on diet’s diet. griilled fish, mutton blah, fruit yoghurt.. what a joke….

    Then, about your normal diet:

    Wheat – 20 rupees per kilo, 1 person consumes roughly 3 kilos a month. Thats 60 rupees on wheat alone.
    Rice – 30 rupees a kilo
    Dal – 90 rupees per kilo: I kilo will feed 4 people for 3 meals.
    Eggs – 48 rupees a dozen
    Oil – 120 rupees per litre
    Sugar – 40 rupees per kilo
    Vegetables run between 30 and 60 rupees per kilo. Half a kilo will feed between two to three people for one meal.
    Tamatar – 30
    Gobhi- 20
    Green vegs – 20
    Onions- 20-25

    Most poor people buy rice/wheat etc from “ration shops” (Public distribution system shops) – where the cost per KG is less than 5 Rs per kilo (2/3 in some states). I suppose more than 50% of the population will come under the PDS (not sure, just a guess, have seen the queue outside PDS stalls in my state, etc).

    2400 calories can be obtained by just eating a rice/wheat based meal and there is no need of vegetables. Of course this is a horrible, nutrition less diet, but most people in India live on such food, with minimal vegetables (just a plate full of rice kanji and some achaar forms the lunch for many!). Gobi etc, I wonder how many people eat (in percentage)! For eg: in tamil nadu, curd rice, which is just curd+rice, is the main lunch item, for majority of the people (all classes). what is the nutrition level of that, I dont know.

    Eggs 48 per dozen… I dont know if there is any need of exaggeration to bunk the 360 per month thing.. But in Bangalore urban eggs costs only 36 per dozen.

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  7. Hi Ravi,

    I’m not sure what your point is exactly. The point I am trying to make is that to calculate poverty based on whether people can afford to eat a diet composed entirely of grain is deeply problematic. I mean to say that most people in India do not eat vegetables, so? Should they not? I said the diet I posted was one which included luxuries, but I had no idea of how to calculate the calorific content of food so I searched the web and this is what I found. What it does make clear though, is how much the upper-class in this country takes for granted. I am not an expert on dietary patterns in India, but I think it is obscene then that 650 gm of grain per day is what the poverty line is fixed at.

    I dont know about Bangalore, but this is what eggs cost last week in Delhi when I bought them from the local market.

    That people cannot afford to eat a balanced meal is not an argument against insisting that the state take responsibility to ensure that they can.

    regards
    Aarti

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  8. Dear Arti,

    The reason why the Tendulkar report, and most econometric studies on Indian poverty levels in recent times make for confusing reading is simple – they use an archaic data point..

    The NSS 2005 data, that is used not just by Prof Tendulkar, but also by the World Bank, does not represent India’s GDP well any more at all. So in 1960, the NSS data represented 87% of GDP, today its less than 50%. In case all numbers are normalised for this fact, the extent of the number of households below poverty line will be very different, much lower…NCAER’s primary research driven data is much “better” in that respect, in its estimate of about 25-30% households classified as poor.

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  9. Hi Somnath,

    Not being an economist I don’t understand what ‘normalized’ means. Could you explain that? I also thought that there must be some other way in which to read these figures because like this they sound too mad to be true. So how must one read this data?

    How does NCAER define poverty? Does it move away from the 650 grams of foodgrain per day baseline? It would be great if you could shed some light on this.

    thanks!
    Aarti

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    1. Hi Aarti,

      Basically, the NSS 2005 data includes numbers that add up to less than 50% of India’s GDP..Therefore, more than half of the consumption is not even being taken into account while apportioning “income” to individuals and household..There are statistical methods of normalising the data therefore to represent the fullness, to the extent possible of information..Normalised acordingly, Surjit Bhalla has estimatyed the % of people below poverty level at 11%..

      NCAER does an income survey. As most people are quite recalcitrant in sharing full income information, they also use a number of “proxies”, like asset ownership etc..Accordign to them, the % of households below poverty level iabout 30% (2004-05 data) using the same poverty line expenditure level determined by Prof Tendulkar (Rs 483 per capita per month avg)..

      But more damningly, the NCAER survey shows that one in 13 households in this group of people in rural areas own a two-wheeler — the figure rises to one in five in urban areas. Which means these households earn enough to afford to buy petrol to use these vehicles. One in four owns a ceiling fan in rural areas and seven in 10 own the same in urban areas; one in 20 in rural India owns a colour TV and the figure is one in 4 in urban India (the figure for black and white TVs is many times this) — which means they live in houses that have electricity.

      All of this really makes a telling comment on how “poor” this group really is, and estimates are in all likelihood grossly overdone…

      There is a standard left liberal angst against the “market reforms” process, but the fact is that by all indicators, this process has over the last 10-15 years provided better prospects for many more Indians than the preceding 40 years..

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  10. Ah! the economist. A mere 11 percent below poverty line (i.e in terms of Rs 483 -500 monthly expenditure, per capita)! And they hide themselves in statistics and under-report themselves to surveyors. And they also prefer to live in jhuggis and such like to camouflage themselves? So you are saying Somnath, that poverty is an optical illusion generated by some left-liberal infection?

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  11. Hi Aditya,

    Poverty is not an optical illusion. But drawing erroneous conclusions out of numbers does not help in viable policy making or debate either..

    The same 500 rupee poverty benchmark segment of the populace (in urban areas) have a 2wheeler penetration of 20%, TV penetration of 25%…If you analyse data on the basis of only half the national output/expenditure, obviously you get numbers that look worse than what they actually are..Therefore, asset ownership patterns dont really add up to the income distribution patterns…

    About jhuggis, they are not a function of inability of the dwellers to pay for better accomodation. They are most often, especially in urban areas, a function of political vested interests in keeping land markets frozen in archaic laws, spawning mini mafias in the jhuggis and thereby controlling votes and pure lack of urban planning…

    The left liberal viewpoint unfortunately beats the wrong end of the stick, ie, the “output” front – end pricing of goods and services. the problems are more often than not in the input front – structure of the market, format of the utility/service provider etc..Once the input is fixed, it is anyway easier to fix the outputs..

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  12. Actually jhuggis have a much more complicated history. Lets leave aside “political vested interests” for the moment. I will come to that later because I have a problem with this “controlling votes” line. I mean the reason why elites can buy farms houses in chattarpur and mehrauli and pay for electricity and water at agricultural rates is as much a “political vested interest” for “controlling votes”. As is also why apollo hospital can get land at Rs 1 per acre and claim its doing “public service”. So lets not go there right now. Land mafias operate at every level of the real estate market, they are certainly not a specialty of the slum.

    There is an entire politics to the creation of the category of the ‘slum’ or the ‘JJ Colony’ which is located in colonial and modernist visions of the city. Therefore old Delhi was designated a ‘slum’ in the 1950s. Many ‘slums’ grew around old urban villages, so Yamuna Pushta Basti grew around the old yamuna pushta gaon, as did LNJP, etc. ‘Slums’ are not static spaces, and indeed the built form of these neighbourhoods tell very interesting stories of incremental settlement and habitation. As earning capacities rise, so habitations move from temporary structures, to semi-permanent to permanent. Further what would make perfect sense in a rural area, namely mud houses or thatched roofs, suddenly become ‘slums’ in a city. Is this not interesting? The filth in a ‘slum’ is almost always because municipal authorities refuse to provide any services at all, neither sewage or garbage collection and people are forced to depend on their own resources.

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  13. Aarti,

    I am fully with you on the question of sainik farms, chattarpur et al..Precisely the reason why land and tenancy laws need to be modern, clear and transparent..If sainik farms are designated as residential areas with property taxes commensurate with the “elite” status of the area, the rich will not be able to get away by paying nothing..

    Whateer the history of the jhuugi, the point I was making is that it is very often not affordibility that comes in the way of creating better infrastructure, but political vested interests in keeping the slums the way they are..Why wouldnt residents of Yamuna Pushta be otherwise ready to welcome a riverside development project along the Yamuna that will revitalise the river, create more jobs and also give them a better roof over their heads? The problem is, if it happens, it will break the traditional patronage networks of the politician and it will become harder for them to “buy” bulk votes during elections, or for that matterdry up his sources of lumpen footsoldiers so important to enforce the status quo in the city..

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  14. Hi Aarti,

    The 77 % poverty line calculation was never an officially accepted figure by the Government of India. The official All-India figure was 27 %.

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  15. Some observations:

    1. The monthly figure of 560 Rs translates to a daily figure of approximately 18 Rs. But this is at 2004-05 prices. This has to be inflation adjusted to get a comparable current price.

    2. The monetary poverty line figure assumes that food and other services are procured at subsidized prices under the PDS or other government schemes.

    3. The new poverty lines have actually increased the Average all India poverty line by 10 % from 27 % to 37 %. Rural poverty was recast from 28 % to 41 % while urban poverty remained the same. The 77 percent you are talking about is the Arjun Sengupta poverty line which was not an official figure (to the best of my knowledge).

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  16. but i thought it was ‘normalized’ to lower the poverty line to make the ruling party look better? Hasn’t this been going on for a while? (the 11% figure actually made me laugh, btw, and not much does, nowadays)
    And Aarti, you did a MUCH better job of sorting this out than most economists. But i’m afraid you have little to no training in neo-classical economics, because if you did, you’d come up with, basically, somnath’s counterarguments…
    This is an interesting way to mess a country up, isn’t it? train their young people in neo-classical economics, and you get, well, people who believe they know so many things…

    (And thank god you’re not one of them)

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