The National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSS) report on household consumer expenditure in India in 2006-07, released last week, may have escaped most people’s attention because of the general pre-occupation with the financial crisis and economic slowdown. Still, some of the trends unveiled by NSS merit serious thought. The pattern of food consumption highlighted by NSS is a case in point. The survey indicates that the per capita spending on food rose in the rural areas to Rs 363 a month in 2006-07, from Rs 333 a year earlier, and constituted as much as 52 per cent of the total per capita expenditure. But, despite this, cereal consumption declined in both rural and urban areas, though households were spending more on such staples. This might have been hailed as a welcome development if it reflected the substitution of cereals with other, more nutritious, high-value foods. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The NSS numbers show no increase in the expenditure on milk, eggs, vegetables and edible oils. Nor can the recent spurt in food prices be the explanation, because the survey data was collected between July 2006 and June 2007 when foodgrain prices had not yet begun their upward spiral. The unprecedented rise in prices that ensued would only have worsened the situation, and presumably will be captured in subsequent surveys. The clear danger is of the spread of malnutrition.
Also disconcerting is the widening rural-urban schism that the NSS survey has re-emphasised through the statistics released on the consumption of fuel and power, and the status of housing and employment. Notably, wood, chips and cow-dung cakes continue to be the main source of fuel for an overwhelmingly proportion (84 per cent) of the rural population. In contrast, a surprisingly high 60 per cent of urbanites were found to be using cooking gas—a figure that strains credulity because of the large percentage of people in towns and cities who live on the pavement or in slums. But taking the numbers as reported, there is a sharp contrast with the rural areas, in which 42 per cent of rural homes still use kerosene lamps for lighting, for want of electric connections. One reason for the low penetration of electricity could be that more than half the rural population lives in katcha (non-concrete) or semi-pucca (partially concrete) dwelling structures, which sometimes provide little shelter from the elements.
Many of these numbers show some improvement from earlier years, but not enough to provide any real satisfaction. Admittedly, the survey relates to a period when there had been rapid economic growth for only a couple of years, and it is arguable that the situation today may be better on at least some counts—though the regional base of poverty overlaps substantially with the slow-growing belt in the heartland and therefore may not have seen much of a difference. There will be the inevitable (and necessary) questions regarding the quality of growth that is required to improve more quickly the living conditions of millions of people. Equally, rapid reforms would have prepared the economy better for the current downturn, and given the system both greater resilience as well as a better ability to bounce back. On the important question of whether the national rural employment guarantee scheme offers the answers, the NSS survey cannot provide the answer because the NREG had barely got going in 2006-07, and perhaps because of that the number of rural men who found employment in public works was 7.2 per cent, and in the case of women 3.5 per cent