Politics of the Indian Poverty Line
The left critiques against the impact of the poorly named “globalization” policies on
Understanding the arguments that support both of these positions has obvious significance for people concerned about poverty in
Different institutions have different ways of measuring poverty. The World Bank for instance uses an income standard to define poverty. The Indian government however adopted a nutritional norm. The official definition of the Indian poverty line, as stated by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation  is as follows.
"The official estimates of the poverty line are based on a norm of 2400 calories per capita per day for rural areas and 2100 per capita per day for urban areas."
Back in 1973 when this methodology was first adopted, the monthly cost of purchasing a basket of food that yields the minimum calorie requirement was determined. This monthly cost has then been adjusted for inflation and food prices. A person is deemed above the poverty line if their total monthly expenditure exceeds this amount.
There are several critiques of this approach to determining poverty line figures. The first is that the total expenditure is used above, not the part of the expenditure that pertains to food. This assumes that a person spends all their income on food, excluding expenditure on other necessities such as health and education. Second, the criteria implied by this definition are woefully inadequate. For instance as of 2004-05, the government deemed a person below the poverty line in rural
The third critique of this approach is even more fundamental. It turns out that the National Sample Survey of India which is the basis for determining expenditure figures also reports calorie intake figures. The question naturally arises why not use the actual calorie intake, why bother with total expenditure figures. Interestingly, using the calorie intake figures yields dramatically different results . For instance, using the calorie figures as obtained through the 55th round of the National Sample Survey directly shows that 87% of the rural population of India has a per-capita calorie intake of less than
2400kCal a day and is thus below the poverty line.
The significance of this observation cannot be overstated. The number is alarmingly high. In contrast, the official poverty line figures state that as of 2004-05 is 28.3%. Second, it has also increased over time – the percentage of the rural population consuming below 2400kCal a day was 75% in 1993-94. These numbers would appear to be a scathing indictment of government policies of the past decade and a half. Similar observations have been made in other studies .
This disparity between official poverty figures and the calorie-based figures has been analyzed from other points of view by economists. Meenakshi and Vishwanathan analyze the poverty figures as broken down by state and observe that the trends are sensitive to where the calorie norm is set. Thus, if we set the calorie norm for rural
Mahendra Dev  observes that the calorie data yield another unintuitive conclusion that the states that are acknowledged to be relatively more prosperous such as Tamil Nadu have higher poverty rates (86.5%) than some of the least prosperous ones such as Rajasthan (56.7%).
Is it really the case that Indians’ diets have diversified so that they consume less as measured in calories? If that sounds counter-intuitive, how do we address the counter-arguments presented above? The fact that a substantial fraction of the wealthy consume fewer calories is surely voluntary. Meenakshi and Vishwanathan’s argument that the data is sensitive to the actual norm set is moot. Of course the data is going to be sensitive to the value of the actual norm. This is hardly a cause for surprise. The key fact that neither of the above arguments addresses is that the calorie consumption of the majority of the population has declined over time and this is what should concern us.
Pronab Sen offers a different point of view . He argues that the main rationale for using expenditure data instead of consumption data is that expenditure indicates whether the basket of foods that yield the requisite number of calories can be afforded, whereas in reality the diet may be different than this specific basket of foods. He derives the number of calories consumed per rupee spent on food. He breaks the data down into three classes: below poverty line (
However, there is a fundamental question that crops up about this analysis when we probe deeper namely how exactly is the calorie-per-rupee figure computed for the
Pronab Sen claims that the calories per rupee figure for the
The first column corresponds to the cumulative population at the given MPCE level. MPCE stands for Mean Per-Capita Consumer Expenditure which includes expenditure on all items including food. This is categorized into ranges – a crucial point when we are computing mean per rupee spent, etc. The third column tells us what fraction of the expenditure is on food. The next column is the per-capita calorie intake. The last column is not in
|MPCE Low||MPCE High||% on
Calorie Intake (kCal/day)
The poverty line class is the third row in this table (where calorie intake is 1662 per day). The main question is this: How should we calculate the calorie/rupee for the
But perhaps the most insightful interpretation of the
It also implies that the decline of average cereal consumption in the nineties is not inconsistent with our earlier findings on poverty decline.”
Where does this leave us?
For a person concerned about poverty in
On the one hand, we have Utsa Patnaik stating that: “Many economic and social indicators suggest that not only is the level of absolute poverty in
On the other hand, we have Deaton and Dreze stating that: “At one end of the spectrum, it has been claimed that the last decade has been a period of unprecedented improvement in living standards, thanks to liberalization. At the other end, the nineties have been described as a period of widespread “impoverishment”, attributed to liberalization. Clearly, these readings fail to do justice to the diversity of recent trends.” Instead, Deaton and Dreze find a more complex picture when they turn to other indicators of poverty. For example, school attendance rates have increased throughout the 1990s whereas the rate of decline of infant mortality slowed down.
More importantly, they also argue against the “mechanical manner” in which the poverty debate in
It is quite striking that a question that is presumably a factual one is debated so heatedly with various interpretations of the same data depending on one’s political viewpoint. For activists concerned with
 A Note On Poverty Estimationhttp://mospi.nic.in/compenv2000_appendix%206.htm
 Utsa Patnaik. Neoliberalism and Rural Poverty in
 Madhura Swaminathan. http://www.hindu.com/2006/09/01/stories/2006090102841000.htm
 J V Meenakshi, Brinda Vishwanathan. Calorie Deprivation in Rural
 Mahendra Dev. Calorie Norms and Poverty. Economic and Political Weekly.
 Pronab Sen. Poverty-undernutrition linkages. Nutrition Foundation of
 ibid, Table 2.
 Deaton A. and Drèze J. Poverty and Inequality in