Friday, July 21, 2006

A Riposte to Surjit Bhalla's riposte

Surjit Bhalla had written a riposte to P.Sainath's article on The Outlook sometime ago. He had quoted data from Economic Survey to show that per capita food consumption had actually *increased* in the so called reform period rather than decreasing. His precise critique of Sainath's article rests on data from Economic Survey and here is the verbatim argument by Bhalla:

So Sainath’s point that foodgrain consumption declined in the 1990s would be consistent with the poor actually having higher incomes after the reforms! But his "fact" that per capita foodgrain consumption has actually declined to the average level prevailing in a famine year is a priori startling.

Actually not that startling, because Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen warned us that the Bengal famine was not due to a shortage of supply of foodgrains. Nevertheless, I do find Sainath’s claim as somewhat of a shocker.

Alas, none of Sainath’s two claims is anywhere near the truth. Per capita consumption (strictly speaking, availability) of foodgrains averaged 364 grams per capita per day in the 1950s, and 391, 398, 420, 441 and 419 in subsequent decades with the last number being for the period 2000 to 2003 (all data from the widely and easily available Government of India, 2004-05 Economic Survey, Table S-17).

Contrary to Sainath, per capita availability of foodgrains peaked in the decade of the reforms. What about the particular year Sainath mentions, 2002-03? It turns out that in that year the availability was a high 457 grams a day!

Utsa Patnaik has written a paper on the decrease in food consumption per capita and the link can be found at :

The quotable paragraph that shall effectively answer Bhalla's questions is as follows:

There is an estimated projection of commercial feed demand with respect to cereals in India made by three economists under the International Food Policy Research Institute, which we have used to obtain the net output figures in Table1. These figures are correspondingly lower than the net output figures in Table S-26 of the official annual Economic Survey which gives net output and availability every year. Per capita figures are obtained by dividing through by total population. We have used the 2001 Census total population estimate and, comparing it with the 1991 Census total, derived the annual compound growth rate of 1.85 per cent, from which the population of each inter-censal year is calculated.

The official figures of population in the Economic Survey are inaccurate; the same absolute figure of 16 million has been added every year up to 1998 starting with the 1991 Census figure; since the base was expanding but the same absolute number continued to be added, the implicit growth rate of population works out to 1.7 per cent, lower than the actual rate, and the actual effect on per capita output was to that extent understated. Since inconsistency arose, with the demographers predicting that India would cross the one billion mark in early 2000, presumably in order to adjust its figures we find that the Economic Survey suddenly added 23 million to the population in 1998 which was a peak agricultural output year, and then went back to adding 16 million the next year! It is surprising that these ad hoc and inaccurate methods have not attracted comment earlier.

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