Issues with Calorie Based Model in Poverty Estimation

Average per capita calorie intake has been extensively used to assess the extent of poverty in India. The 1993 Lakadawala Committee used this approach and fixed a threshold daily calorie intake per capita at 2,400 and 2,100 calories for rural and urban populations, respectively. The definition of the poverty line, in nominal terms, is the per capita expenditure which enables a household to afford that specified poverty line basket. Households with a lower income are categorized as calorie-deprived and, hence, under the poverty line. This approach has been discarded now because of several limitations of this approach.

Firstly, the most important limitation of this approach is that there is hardly any consensus on the subsistence calorie threshold. Then, there is a change in calorie norms over time, which makes it harder to press for a uniform calorie threshold. It has been demonstrated that the per capita calorie consumption has been declining in India for last 3 decades despite of increase in real wages. Thus, the calorie requirements norms would need frequent changes. Moreover, the absorption of calories from food items depends on various characteristics of an individual, for example his health status, metabolic rate and fitness level etc. Most of these characteristics are unobservable and difficult to measure. For example, a person with some stomach disorder may have to consume a larger amount of food items compared to a healthy individual for obtaining a definite level of calories. If we use the same calorie threshold for a person suffering from a stomach disorder and a healthy individual, we either underestimate the extent of poverty among the persons with stomach disorder or overestimate the degree of poverty among the healthy individuals. Secondly, this threshold calorie approach also does not take into account the non-nutritional attributes of the food such as taste. It is not the calorie content that makes a householder select her food basket, taste also matters a lot.  Thus, what may be a sufficient item with respect to calorie content, may not be suitable with respect to taste or some other non-attributable aspect. Thirdly, it has been indicated that there is not a very strong link between the income of a household and calories consumed by members of this household.

Thus, the poverty estimates could be arbitrary if we consider the poverty line basket and per capita calorie consumption.

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