Essential reading for Sonia Gandhi PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 06 January 2012 05:18
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Top economists bust myths like India's nutrition record being worse than sub-Saharan Africa and rising farmer suicides


India may have been shining but Bharat most certainly isn’t. Despite all the evidence of increasing consumption levels in rural areas, that remains the essential dialogue of all political parties. And the evidence of this that is most often cited are various reports from the World Bank (22% of the world’s ‘missing’ women are in India), IFPRI (in terms of malnutrition, India is on a par with Timor-Leste) and other respected international organisations. The reason for this, as P Sainath (the only journalist Press Council of India chairman Justice Markandey Katju thinks is doing a good job) has told us often enough, is that Indians just aren’t getting enough calories any more and that farmer suicides are also rising. That, by the way, is also the reason for why Sonia Gandhi wants to bring in the Food Security Bill, to eradicate the widespread food hunger that is a huge blot on any country, let alone one that has pretensions to becoming a global power. We could go on, but you get the gist.


An absolutely essential read in this context is a book (out by March) by noted economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. While the book has the usual prescriptions on how

India needs to reform more and the costs of not doing so, that is not the main reason why you need to read the book—the reasons are well-argued, not surprising given the lineage of the authors, but a large part of this is familiar stuff, even for journalists. The chapter that’s really a must-read is the one on various myths that characterise India’s development-versus-growth debate (sadly, the ‘versus’ is the way it is positioned) since what the

authors have done it to put down 19 ‘myths’ and busted them using official data—would be a good idea to confront all the povertywallahs with the data and see if they can explain it away.

Space doesn’t permit getting into all the myths plus, as James Lamont of the FT put it at a pre-publication discussion on Thursday, if the myths had been kept to a smaller number, the impact would have been greater. This column will take up just three of the myths in the interests of space and time (see graphics only if you want to save even more time!)

Reforms have bypassed the socially disadvantaged: Since the book uses data only till 2004-05, this column uses the later NSS data available till 2009-10, and the results show the fall in poverty levels have been the fastest for the Muslims and the Scheduled Tribes, followed by the Scheduled Castes. Data using the NCAER sample survey show that income levels for each group, from upper class Hindus to Scheduled Tribes, rise as they move from agriculture to industry and services, from rural areas to small towns and large metros, from being illiterate to being graduates—since economic growth causes, and is caused by, all these changes, it’s not surprising that disadvantaged groups are benefiting the most.

Farmer suicides are on the rise: A further rider is added to this narrative—with the rise in cultivation of BT cotton, suicide levels have risen further. Bhagwati and Panagariya take data from the National Crime Records Bureau (the only official publication that’s available) which really begins from 1997 and find that while suicides have increased for the general population, they have

fallen for farmers, in both relative and nominal terms—and as a proportion of the population, levels of farmer suicides are lower than those for the general population! In the BT cotton states like Gujarat, the number of farmer suicides were the lowest and even these fell a bit during the years BT cotton cultivation was rising.

Food hunger is on the rise: To begin with, Bhagwati and Panagariya report the NSS data on the replies given when people were asked if they had enough to eat every day of the year. Only 81.1% of the respondents in rural areas and 93.3% in urban areas answered in the affirmative in the 1983 NSS survey. By 2004-05, however, this had risen to 97.4% and 99.4%, respectively.

But what about the falling calorie intake, surely that’s a sign of the rising problem of malnutrition? The authors use the same NSS data to show that the consumption of fats is rising—that’s certainly unhealthy but doesn’t point to a problem of hunger. In any case, rising levels of food hunger don’t gel with the rising incomes for each decile.

Related to this is the problem of malnutrition and stunting (http://bit.ly/ w8w5ra)—the proportion of children under 3 who are underweight, Bhagwati and Panagariya quote one authority as saying, haven’t changed between 1998-99 and 2005-06, hovering around 50%. But the WHO norm used to calculate undernourishment or stunting, it appears, is based on averages drawn from populations that are taller and heavier than Indians. How this distorts the result is best appreciated from the fact that by this norm, 37% of kids in Punjab are stunted and 25% underweight. Indeed, an ‘elite’ sample was drawn from the Indian data—parents had done secondary schooling and they had an automobile and a refrigerator at home and yet 15% of the kids were stunted!

But why blame politicians, few economists and even fewer journalists ever highlight such facts.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 06 January 2012 09:08 )

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