People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 12, 2013


On Amartya Sen’s Expose


Prabhat Patnaik


ON May 6, at a press conference in Delhi, Amartya Sen expressed displeasure at the prolonged disruption of parliament that had held up passage of the National Food Security Bill. He said that if the bill was not passed then several hundred children would go hungry or die from under-nutrition.


Sen himself has always favoured a universal public distribution system (PDS); the fact that he came out so strongly for the passing of the proposed bill which is “targeted” to provide food security to only 67 per cent of the population, which assures only cereals to the targeted beneficiaries, and that too to the extent of only five kilograms per month as against the ICMR norm of 14 kilograms, which does not specify a time-frame for the implementation of the measure, and which allows the entry of contractors and commercial interests into the food supply process, only underscores the seriousness, in his perception, of the problem of hunger and under-nutrition in the country.




An expose of this seriousness coming from a person of Sen’s eminence is of great significance, for this is precisely what the Left has been saying all along and what the government, whether NDA or UPA, has been denying all along. Successive governments have claimed that poverty has been declining in India. The World Bank too has claimed that India’s poverty ratio has been declining.


What is more, this ratio according to most such estimates is less than a third at present. The government’s estimate (on Tendulkar’s criteria) is 29.8 per cent for 2009-10; the World Bank’s estimate (where the criterion is spending less than 1.25 US dollars per day) is 32.7 per cent in 2010, which itself is believed to have been boosted by the world recession from the 27.5 per cent that it otherwise would have been; and the UNDP’s estimate (taken presumably from the government of India) is 29.8 per cent.


The World Bank believes that India’s poverty ratio will reach 23.6 per cent by 2015, so that India, according to it, “is on track for meeting its poverty reduction goals.” A UN Development Goals report believes that India’s poverty ratio will come down to 22 per cent by 2015, which would mean a fall from 51 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent in 2015 (The Times of India, July 6, 2011). And the Twelfth Five Year Plan projects a 10 per cent reduction in the poverty ratio (2 per cent per year) to less than 20 per cent (19.8 per cent to be precise) by the end of the Plan.


Now, if these figures were more or less correct, then the question would naturally arise: why should there be such concern about the expeditious passing of the food security legislation?


One answer to this question could be that while poverty might be coming down in India, hunger continues to be rampant, which is why a food security legislation still becomes necessary. But poverty in India is defined with reference to hunger. It is defined, as is well-known, with reference to a calorie norm: 2100 calories per person per day in urban India and 2400 calories (later reduced to 2200 calories) per person per day in rural India. The official poverty line is simply that level of per capita expenditure in the base year when a person accessed these calorie norms; and this is brought up to date for later years by using a consumer price index. (The index varies between urban and rural India; and its computation has undergone a change of late, a fact that need not detain us here).


To say that poverty has come down while hunger has increased will mean therefore either that the price index used is wrong (so that poverty has not actually come down) or that people, even though they have adequate real purchasing power, choose voluntarily not to spend as much on food as they should (in which case what is needed is an improvement in their awareness, so that they spend less on, say, cell-phones and more on food, rather than a food security legislation).




Besides, if poverty is indeed restricted to less than one-third of the population, then one has to concede that the critics of the proposed legislation, who argue that a food security legislation covering as much as 67 per cent of the population is unnecessary, do have a point. So an emphasis on the urgency of the legislation on the grounds of prevalence of hunger and under-nutrition must presuppose a rejection of the numerous official and international agencies’ poverty estimates as farcical.


There can, however, be a second possible way of reconciling a belief in declining poverty with an emphasis on the need for a food security legislation. And this states that even though poverty is coming down in India, child under-nutrition continues to be rampant. Indeed the World Bank itself, a strong votary of the poverty-is-declining-in-India view, holds that the proportion of underweight children, which is 24 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, is as high as 47 per cent in India. (And even Sen’s reference to “children” at the press conference may be construed by some as expressing concern about child under-nutrition, and making a case for the proposed legislation on those grounds, rather than of hunger in general.)


But if children continue to be under-nourished even as enough purchasing power is going into the hands of the people to keep lifting them above the poverty line (as is officially claimed), then the reason for this, at least in the case of the non-BPL households, must be either ignorance or callousness on the part of the parent(s), which again is not necessarily taken care of by introducing food security legislation.


It follows then that the rationale for food security legislation lies in the fact that most households do not have adequate purchasing power to meet their food needs at the price charged to the non-BPL population, which means that the ratio of the non-BPL population is grossly overestimated. Poverty in short is far more serious than what all these national and international official agencies claim, as the Left has been arguing all along and as even Amartya Sen has, if only implicitly, underscored in his press conference.


Notwithstanding all the talk of high GDP growth, all the hullabaloo about India emerging as a new “economic superpower,” and all the hype about the development success of the country as a whole, and of some particular states within it like Gujarat, on the basis of which the corporate-financial interests are actually projecting a man, accused of having presided over the infamous 2002 pogrom against the Muslims, as the next prime minister of the country, poverty in India continues to be extremely pervasive.


This fact, for which there is evidence galore, should cause no surprise. There has been a decline in per capita calorie and protein intake --- both in rural and urban India --- precisely in the period of high GDP growth. The proportion of the rural population with intake below 2200 calories per person per day, and the proportion of the urban population below 2100 calories per person per day, have both increased in the period of high GDP growth itself, that is between 2004-05 and 2009-10 to reach respectively 75.5 per cent of rural and 73 per cent of urban population by the latter date; and this is the true measure of poverty. The annual per capita foodgrain availability in the country is well below what it was prior to the start of the so-called “reforms,” i.e. at the end of the 1980s, and is comparable today to what it had been on the eve of the Second World War. And the “Global Hunger Index” calculated for 81 developing countries shows that between 1996 and 2011 it declined for 78 countries, and increased for only three. India, needless to say, was among these three; and it should be a salutary reminder for those who take pride in India’s post-independence development compared to its neighbours that Pakistan was among the 78.




Amartya Sen’s anxiety over the passing of the food security legislation therefore should bring home to large numbers of people a point which the Left has been emphasising for long, namely that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” that it is obscene to gloat over the so-called economic success of India under the neo-liberal regime when the reality is so different.


It is this gloating, ironically, that has also come in the way of even this limited food security legislation that the government is trying to introduce. Large numbers of economists, intellectuals, political leaders and social activists have been so taken in by the cacophony generated by the government and international agencies about the decline in India’s poverty, that they underestimate the seriousness of the problem of hunger, under-nutrition and child malnutrition. If India is well on course to reducing its poverty ratio to no more than a fifth in the next quinquennium, a fifth confined mainly to remote regions, then surely, they believe (if only implicitly), bringing in food security legislation could not be such a pressing need.


Those who disrupt parliament demanding the resignation of the two tainted central ministers and hold up the food security legislation in the process, those who complain about the fiscal burden of the food subsidy that would be needed if 67 per cent of the population is to be provided fixed amounts of cheap food, are no doubt conservative in their outlook. But can one blame only their conservatism for their conduct? Have they not been fed, like almost every body else in the country, on a daily diet of how well the country has been doing by way not only of growth but also of poverty removal?


True, the public intellectuals of the country outside of the Left (and they are more numerous) should have debunked these claims and exposed the truth behind India’s so-called “success story;” but the sad fact about contemporary India is that they too are not free of wishful thinking.