The cost of a recommended diet (CoRD) in India in 2011 (the most recent year for which expenditure and consumption data is available) was ₹45.1 and ₹51.3 for women and men, according to a paper published this month in the Food Policy journal — numbers that, according to the paper’s authors, Kalyani Raghunathan, an economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and others were almost 1.6 times the commonly used World Bank poverty line of $1.9 a day in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms.
Worse still, according to the paper, in real terms, CoRD increased more than 3.5 times for both men and women between 2001 and 2011. To be sure, real earnings increased at a faster pace, especially for men, during this period.
The paper highlights an important fact: freedom from poverty, even food security — the way in which it is defined by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) — do not guarantee nutrition security. As a result, while India achieved a rapid reduction in poverty in the 2000s, a majority of its rural population was unable to afford nutritional diets and nutritional poverty was significantly higher in India than what is captured by commonly used poverty measures.
For its calculation of a nutritionally adequate diet in rural India, the paper used the definition used by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN).
Nutrition insecurity significantly higher than poverty
Only 22.5% Indians were poor, if one were to take the World Bank’s $1.9 per day poverty line in PPP terms, in 2011. This share was 24.8% in rural India. The share of Indian population considered food insecure by the FAO in 2011-12 was even lower, just 16.3%. The FAO measure essentially looks at calorie adequacy and therefore does not take into account other nutritional requirements. However, 63.3% of people in rural India could not afford what the paper describes as the Cost of a Recommended Diet (CoRD). This share increases to 76.2% if one were to assume that a third of their spending would go on non-food items.
Milk, vegetables are the key burden on nutritious diet budgets, not cereals
NIN has laid out dietary guidelines which specify the required intake of food items under the broad categories of cereals, proteins (pulses, meat, fish and eggs), dairy, fruits, vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables and oil and fats. The paper has estimated CoRD by looking at the cost of the cheapest food items in each of these groups across India’s 380 rural districts, calculating the price of the nutritionally adequate food basket and then checking its affordability with expected earnings of men and women. The authors estimate CoRD to be Rs 45.1 and Rs 51.3 for women and men in 2011. The paper also gives a break up (by cost) of a nutritionally adequate diet and almost half of the cost is on account of dairy products and vegetables. The composition of CoRD, when compared with the weights in rural Consumer Price Index (CPI) food basket shows that the latter overestimates the importance of cereals and proteins at the cost of dairy products, fruits and vegetables. Another interesting finding of the paper is that not only have food prices increased between 2001 and 2011, which is expected, but so has their volatility.
Monsoon worsens nutritional insecurity in India
A key metric which the paper tracks is the ratio of CoRD and wage earnings, which is a good measure of affordability of nutritious diets. Affordability of nutritious diets worsens as the ratio becomes higher. The authors find that nutritional insecurity peaks in the country during the monsoon months, and is the highest in July. This is driven by an increase in CoRD, which seems to be a result of sharp rise in vegetable prices. Wages are mostly constant throughout the year, the paper finds.
Economic Survey’s Thalinomics does not capture nutritional inadequacy in India
While the authors list out limitations to their findings such as validity of data used, difficulties of accounting for consumer preferences in calculating CoRD, non-food expenditure, impact of government schemes etc. they express confidence that the central conclusions continue to be robust. They also find issues with the Thalinomics discussion in this year’s Economic Survey, which concluded that affordability of vegetarian thalis improved 29% from 2006-07 to 2019-20 while that for non-vegetarian thalis improved by 18%. The Economic Survey’s methodology excluded dairy, fruits and dark green leafy vegetables, often the most expensive food items, the authors note. They also find an issue with industrial wages being used to compare affordability while nutritional insecurity is the biggest problem among unskilled workers.
Because India does not have a consumption survey after 2011-12, estimates of nutritional insecurity cannot be calculated after this period. However, given the fact that the economy has been in a prolonged slowdown even before the pandmeic and rural wage growth has been weak, the situation could have worsened, Raghunathan said.