October 05, 2014

The Dalits And Undernutrition

Prabhat Patnaik

IT is as if the fact that we still have manual scavenging six and a half decades after independence were not enough; it is as if the fact of the daily perpetration of the most horrendous atrocities on the Dalits was not enough; in the realm of nutrition itself, which constitutes the most elemental necessity of life, the condition of the Dalits has worsened quite remarkably over the decade-and-a-half between 1993-94 and 2009-10. This fact has got hidden until now by the utterly spurious “poverty” estimates that the Planning Commission under the neo-liberal regime has been putting out. But if we ignore these “poverty” estimates, and go directly to the nutritional data that the NSS has started presenting of late, which have been examined at length by Utsa Patnaik, then we get a truly shocking picture. Consider rural India first, where a daily per capita intake of 2200 calories is taken as a sort of “norm”, indeed the official benchmark figure for poverty estimates. If we take the rural population as a whole, then the proportion accessing less than 2200 calories per person per day in 1993-4 was 58.5 percent; it increased to 75.5 percent in 2009-10. The corresponding figures for the population belonging to the “Scheduled Castes” were 70.5 and 84 respectively. Thus the percentage of the SC population below 2200 calories has not only systematically exceeded the percentage of the total population below 2200 calories, but, notwithstanding the already high figure in 1993-4, it has actually climbed up quite significantly. Exactly the same can be said of the population belonging to the Scheduled Tribes. The percentage of the ST population below 2200 calories per person per day in rural India which was 73.5 in 1993-4 increased to 85 in 2009-10. The figure was not only much higher than the average for the population as a whole for both the years, but, notwithstanding the already high percentage in 1993-4, still climbed up quite significantly by 2009-10. The picture for urban India is no different. The official benchmark figure here, on the basis of which poverty estimates are supposed to be made, is 2100 calories per person per day. The percentage of total urban population below this figure was 57 in 1993-4 which increased to 73 in 2009-10; the corresponding percentages for the SC population in urban India were 75 and 85 respectively, and for the ST population in urban India 67.5 and 77 respectively. In other words not only were the percentages much higher than for the general population, but also went up quite significantly, notwithstanding their original high values. WORSENING PLIGHT OF THE SC/STS Some would say that the figures have gone up for the population as a whole, and not just for the SC/ST population; so why single out the SC/ST population while discussing hunger and under-nutrition? But the fact that the percentage of the total population falling below benchmark levels of nutrition has increased, to which we have drawn attention in these pages on numerous occasions, can hardly be a source of satisfaction when we are discussing the worsening plight of the SC/ST population. The fact that non-SC/ST persons too are becoming increasingly undernourished cannot minimise the significance of the worsening state of hunger and under-nutrition among the SC/ST persons whose condition was already abysmal in the base year and has become even more so over time. There is however an additional point that must be taken note of, when we compare the SC/ST population with the non-SC/ST population. There is an absolute minimum level of calories per day on average that is required by everyone; below this a person will simply not survive. Doctors typically put this figure at 1000/1100 calories. One would not therefore find any person below this minimum in any statistical data. Either people beg, borrow or steal to ensure that they get this minimum level; or they simply do not survive such a state of under-nutrition, to be counted in any statistical enumeration. But what is true of this minimum is actually true of a whole range of figures at the lower end of the spectrum. Hence, even when the relative magnitude of hunger and under-nutrition is increasing in a population, the percentage below a significantly lower norm than the benchmark should not be increasing. The rise in the relative magnitude of hunger and under-nutrition in other words typically takes the form of many just above the benchmark getting pushed to just below the benchmark, but not any similar shift if we take a figure that is significantly below the benchmark. This hunch is borne out by the fact that the percentage of the non-SC/ST/OBC population below 1800 calories per person per day was just 14 percent in 2009-10 in rural India and just 15 percent in urban India, when the percentage of such population below 2200 calories was 63 percent in rural India, and below 2100 calories 62 percent in urban India in the same year. (There was in other words a dense concentration just around the benchmark, which had moved down from just above to just below the benchmark over this intervening period). The percentages below 1800 calories being very low for this year, it is a reasonable inference that a similar stepping down could not have happened, i.e., that there could not have been any significant increase in this percentage compared to 1993-4. (We do not unfortunately have direct data on this for the earlier year). In the case of the SC/ST population however we find an entirely different picture: the percentage of SC population below 1800 calories increased from 27 to 32 in rural India between 1993-4 and 2009-10; and the percentage of ST population below this norm increased from 30 to 38 over this same period. Likewise for urban India the percentage of SC population below 1800 calories per person per day increased from 39.5 to 48 between 1993-4 to 2009-10, and for the ST population from 33 to 39. The fact that such significant increases occurred even when we take a much lower calorie norm shows the increase in the depth of poverty. (To be sure if we take a still lower norm, of say 1200 calories, we might not find such an increase, for reasons discussed earlier, since very few would survive such a low intake; but the fact that an increase, and that too of a noticeable order, is observable even at a low norm of 1800 calories should be a matter of the utmost concern). What is also noteworthy about these figures is another fact. Almost half of the SC population in rural India in 2009-10 did have access to 1800 calories per person per day. Now, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) considers a nutritional intake of 1800 calories per person per day to be absolutely necessary for anyone undertaking non-sedentary work. Since, obviously, the SC population in rural India is hardly engaged in any sedentary work, half of this population not accessing the minimum calorie intake needed for continuing to do this work, is a matter of enormous significance. It is true that this proportion, of SC persons falling below 2200 calories in rural India, has come down between 2004-5 and 2009-10 (though it is still much higher compared to 1993-4). This decline could be attributed, at least in part, to the MGNREGS that was introduced by the UPA-I government precisely in this intervening period between 2004-5 and 2009-10. Nonetheless almost half of the rural SC population still falling below 1800 calories per person per day, indicates an abysmal state of affairs. The demand for winding up the MGNREGS as a rights-based programme and converting it into a mere “food-for-work” programme, which has been articulated by the Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, has to be seen in this context. A rights-based programme enjoins upon the State a duty to provide employment on demand, or unemployment allowance in case it fails to do so; if it does neither, then it can be taken to court. True, there has hardly been much litigation by those denied their rights (a situation that urgently needs to be rectified through the intervention of the democratic forces); nonetheless the sheer threat of such litigation acts as a pressure upon the State not to sleep over the MGNREGS. The “food-for-work” programme on the other hand depends entirely on the whim of the State; it may provide employment when it feels like (close to election time for instance); and it may not when it does not. SCUTTLING OF THE MGNREGS A substitution of the MGNREGS by a “food-for-work” programme amounts therefore to a scuttling of the MGNREGS. If despite the existence of the MGNREGS almost half the SC population in rural India is so undernourished that it cannot even access 1800 calories per person per day, then the sheer havoc in human terms that its scuttling would cause can well be imagined. On the basis of the Planning Commission’s spurious “poverty line” it is often claimed that the magnitude of poverty in the country as a whole, both in rural and in urban India, has been coming down; and that even the Dalit population has witnessed a decline in poverty. But it stands to reason that people who are becoming less poor do not at the same time become hungrier. In fact data all over the world, whether across countries for any particular year or across countries across years, invariably show that a rise in per capita real income is associated with an increase in per capita cereal consumption, as well as in per capita calorie intake. Even international statistics show in other words that, as people become better off, they consume more, not just generally but in terms of calorie intake. Taking this as a general behavioural pattern, the fact that in India the calorie intake has been going down, including especially for the SC/ST population who already are greatly undernourished, cannot be attributed to any voluntary decision on their part to reduce their consumption even while becoming better off. On the contrary, the obvious conclusion to draw is that they are facing a growing squeeze on their real income which underlies their growing under-nutrition. This growing squeeze, even in the midst of the much-celebrated high GDP growth, speaks volumes about the nature and desirability of such growth. The BJP government’s wish to scuttle the MGNREGS, that offers some succour to the poor, in the name of pursuing a “development agenda”, reveals only the fake nature of this “development agenda”.