September 02, 2007

Of hunger

Tehelka carries my review of Utsa Patnaik's The Republic of Hunger in the current issue, somewhat truncated. Here's the full version.


According to a new survey by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), nearly 84 crore Indians live on Rs 20 a day or less. Stop for a moment to think of that number. Stop to think of what Rs 20 means to you.

That's 77 per cent of India, that lives on less than 50 cents a day. Not only that. According to this report, many of those 84 crore Indians are actually above the famous "poverty line", which tops out at Rs 12 a day. So we cannot even call these people poor.

When so much of what we hear is about booming India and its newly minted billionaires, when so much of what we see is new cars and spectacular malls, what explains such news? How must we react to such news?

Well, I think of a bright spark who once dissected (the popular term is "fisked") an Utsa Patnaik article on his blog. With data that shows the rural poor eating less grain than they were before reforms began, Patnaik had claimed what she does in this book: "Rural India is in deep and continuing distress ... [I]n village India ... calorie intake per head continues to decline."

The blogger disagreed:
    "There is a decline in rice and wheat consumption, and also in the consumption of dal ... But at the same time, the consumption of other stuff has risen. ... [E]ven the poor are better off. How much better off? On average, about six eggs a year."
It left me bewildered. The reforms have done many things, yes. But here's one of the true believers in the process, and what does he pull out to trumpet its success?

That the poor eat one extra egg every two months.

By any reckoning and putting it kindly, a damp squib. Even if this represents a dramatic increase in the consumption of eggs, what does it say that fifteen years of reforms have bettered the lives of the poor to the extent that they can buy one additional egg -- all of two rupees worth -- every two months? To me, making such a claim is in itself a damning of the reforms.

Yet perhaps that's the reaction Utsa Patnaik's work generates. Her conclusions fly so hard in the face of reforming rising India, that the cheerleaders of reforms must feel they have to defend that vision any way they can. Which, of course is just the way things should be. But do these six eggs amount to any kind of defence?

This is an eye-opening book. Patnaik's theme is essentially how a reforming India has, whether by accident or design, failed to address the needs of its poor. She throws the evidence at us again and again, in different forms but all leading to the same conclusion: the poor have access to less food than before the reforms, and this means greater poverty.

How much less food? Here are the figures as Patnaik quotes them in one place in the book:
    "Between 1950 and 1991 per capita absorption [of foodgrains] rose slowly from 152 kg to 177 kg as per capita incomes rose. ... [T]hese gains of four decades have been wiped out in a single decade of economic reform ... [Absorption] fell by 3 kg per head in the seven years up to 1998 [and] a fall of 19 kg has taken place in the mere five years of NDA rule ... to 155 kg [in 2002-03]."
She tells us that even with this fall, the government of India exported record millions of tonnes of foodgrains in 2002-03. This was, she says, "only made possible by more and more empty human stomachs over the preceding years."

That stark image, in some ways, sums up this book.

Patnaik supports all this well, with a number of detailed tables and analyses. Yet one problem with the book lies there. At times the reasoning gets so detailed that even a statistics junkie like me reaches overload. I realize that figures need careful analysis, and I have some knowledge of the overall case Patnaik is trying to make. But who will listen if she makes it so unapproachably?

The other problem is that this is an angry book. Not that anger by itself is wrong, and given the profound betrayal of so many Indians that Patnaik is talking about, anger may even be appropriate. Yet as she lashes out against the NDA regime, economists including Amartya Sen, the West, capitalists, the WTO -- as she does so using "conceptually blind", "immoral, "efficient dispenser of death", "crocodile tears", "intellectually servile" and "comprador" -- I find myself thinking of the question writers must eventually ask themselves: do I want to be polemical, or do I want to be persuasive?

Has Patnaik asked herself that question?

Now there are two things I've always believed about the reforms that we embarked on starting in the early '90s. One, that they had to happen. Two, that the fundamental reason for them was the miserable poverty in which so many Indians lived. Something had to be done to tackle that misery.

Fifteen years since then, it's fair to investigate, as Patnaik sets out to do, what reforms have done to tackle poverty. Putting a positive spin on things, I believe they have not done enough. After all, if it is true that three-fourths of India lives on Rs 20 or less a day, arguing with Patnaik takes on an air of futility. In what sense have the reforms been any kind of success if, a decade-and-a-half into applying them, misery remains so widespread?

Would it be fair to ask, how else could we have addressed poverty? How will we address it in the future?

These are the questions I wish Patnaik had tried to answer in this book. Maybe she has indeed answered them, somewhere in between all the anger. But if she lost me -- a reader sympathetic to and in broad agreement with some of what she says, a reader who stuck with the book till the end -- what has she done to her other readers?

Because here's the thing: for all her compelling material and evidence, Patnaik will lose her readers at some point in this book -- either through analysis fatigue or anger fatigue. What has she achieved, then?

Persuasive? Well, more so than the six eggs were. But not persuasive enough. Given what's at stake, that's a great pity.


Anonymous said...

Frankly, I have no idea why this assignment was given to you or for that matter, why you chose to accept it. The subject matter is technical and a reviewer must have a good knowledge of the (technical) contributions that others have made to this subject. With all due respect to you, I don't think you are such a person. May I recommend you go through some of the articles at Angus Deaton's website (Department of Economics, Princeton) to start with?

For the record, the consensus seems to be that poverty has declined over the past 15 years, though its extent remains a matter of controversy. I don't think Utsa Patnaik's extreme claims are taken very seriously within academia.

km said...

Those are some scary stats.

But the popular Indian opinion of today reminds me of the mindset of American technology media circa 1999. They don't want to hear contrarian views. They believe in their own b.s. And we all know what happens next.

Anonymous said...

Good post Dilip. Rounding up I hope from "Bare right field" and some of the thinking at "Free to Choose India".

Am NO expert on this. But hope all of us can be slightly angry at the professionally and permanently angry ones on 'their' team and ask them what the *viable* alternative is that they propose (beyond saying its all that other guy's fault).

Good discussion on this at:


Anonymous said...

I didn't want to believe your (Patnaik's)stats! In fact I went and read the six eggs post ready to believe their stats without question.
The reasoning is appalling! How can grain consumption ever be on decline if the income of poor is better. I must question statistics which say that milk vegetable and eggs consumption is on rise while the grain consumption has declined. Either of the two have got to be wrong!

Dilip D'Souza said...

The subject matter is technical and a reviewer must have a good knowledge of the (technical) contributions that others have made to this subject.

Ah, I get it. Poverty is a "technical" subject, and I cannot comprehend it without "a good knowledge of the (technical) contributions" of some other people. I mean, that woman and her infant son who live on a nearby street corner, who have been there for two years -- no, no, they are a "technical" subject. Let me go read up some (technical) contributions before I repeat the mistake of speaking to them.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I get it. Poverty is a "technical" subject, and I cannot comprehend it without "a good knowledge of the (technical) contributions" of some other people.

You don't get it but I guess all I am going to get is more sarcasm...For what it's worth, my final word on the subject.

"Poverty" has various dimensions as you yourself will note. If we are talking about the actual degrading experience of poverty, then you are most certainly as qualified as anyone else to comment on the book. For sure, you are more qualified than me for I cannot claim - I am not proud of this - to have actually sat down and talked with poor people as you and others (like my sister) have done.

The issue here is different and it has to do with the statistical measure of poverty and how it has changed over time, particularly since 1991. Whether you like it or not, that is technical. You need to understand the assumptions behind the various poverty measures, a good understanding of the data (and the limitations of that data) from which these indices are computed as well as the contributions of others to the subject. Your direct experience of poverty - your work with "denotified" tribes etc. - does not, in my opinion, qualify you to review Utsa Patnaik's work. On the other hand, if you do know the literature, please accept my apologies.

On a different note, my condolences on the loss of your father.

Dilip D'Souza said...

On the other hand, if you do know the literature, please accept my apologies.

I do. There's no need for apologies.

Thank you for your note about my father.

Anonymous said...

I do.

In which case, I apologise, though you say that there's no need.

For those still following this, the issue that bothers me is whether Utsa Patnaik's claims are credible given that most other researchers have measured a decline in the incidence of poverty. I guess one way of trying to answer this is to see how the nutritional status of Indians has changed: if hunger is as widespread as Utsa Patnaik claims, then it must show up in health related indicators like stunted growth, "wasted" women etc. Peter Svedberg seems to have done quite a bit of work and this paper of his titled "Hunger in India: Facts and Challenges" may be of interest to some:

The paper seems to provide some support to Utsa Patnaik but not too much. From the conclusions of the paper:

"Looking at developments over time, there are some encouraging trends. The shares of young children who are abnormally short and underweight for their age have declined considerably since the 1970. Especially notable is that the share of extremely stunted children in India has dropped from about 50 to 23 per cent. Another encouraging finding is that the “conventional” notion that female children are at a systematic disadvantage vis-à-vis male children is not supported by the anthropometric data.

There are also discouraging developments. One is that the shares of children with unduly low height and weight for their age have increased, while having declined more or less consistently for more than two decades, in the late 1990s. It is too early to say whether this is an incidental statistical phenomenon or a true break in the previous trend; it is nevertheless worrying. Also discouraging is that inter-state differences when it comes to height- and weight-for-age failure of children seem to grow. That is, while the developments for India as a whole look favourable, there are states where progress has been considerably slower. We only have estimates for eight states over time, but these indicate a growing diversification within India. Yet another discouraging development is that the urban/rural divide has grown in the 1990s. (emphasis added)

While it is encouraging to find little systematic differences between male and female children in terms of anthropometric status, there are indications that this may be a
consequence of a higher mortality rate for female infants and children. To find out more about this worrying link is one of the important challenges for future research, but there are others. In particular, no attempt has been made in this article to provide theoretical and empirical explanations for the statistical regularities revealed. To do that should also stand high on the research agenda for the near future."

Peter Svedberg's website is at