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)
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)
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
Green vegs – 20
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…