Nutrition in India: Facts and Interpretations
In spite of India’s rapid economic growth, there has been a sustained decline in per capita calorie consumption during the last twenty-five years. While the decline has been largest among better-off households, it has taken place throughout the range of household per capita total expenditure. For both adults and children, anthropometric indicators of nutritional status in India are among the worst in the world. While these indicators have shown improvement over time, the rate of progress is slow relative to what might be expected based on international and historical experience. This paper presents the basic facts about growth, poverty and nutrition in India, it points to a number of puzzles, and it sketches a preliminary story that is consistent with the evidence. The reduction in calorie consumption cannot be attributed to declining real incomes, nor to any increase in the relative price of food. Our leading hypothesis, on which much work remains to be done, is that, as real incomes and wages have increased, leading to some nutritional improvement, there has been an offsetting reduction in calorie requirements due to declining levels of physical activity and possibly also to various improvements in the health environment. If correct, this analysis does not imply that Indians are currently adequately nourished; nothing could be further from the truth. Calorie intake has serious limitations as a nutritional intake; while calories are extremely important, there are too many sources of variation in calorie requirements for standard, invariant, calorie-norms to be usefully applied to large sections of the population. We conclude with a plea for better, and more regular, monitoring of nutritional status in India.
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