Cover Image
close this bookKerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (FF, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the document1. Introduction to the 1994 printing
View the document2. The land of coconuts
View the document3. Kerala's achievements
View the document4. Behind Kerala's success
View the document5. Food for all
View the document6. Health
View the document7. Education
View the document8. Land reform
View the document9. Helping workers
View the document10. Overcoming caste
View the document11. Women and the Kerala reforms
View the document12. Lessons from Kerala
View the documentNotes
View the documentNotes to the introduction
View the documentBibliography
View the documentInstitute publications
View the documentAbout the institute

5. Food for all

Of all the needs in the poorest countries, food is surely the most basic, a prerequisite to health and long life. To assess Kerala's development approach, we need first consider how well the need for food is being met.

Although Kerala has high food output per unit area of land, much of the best land is used for cash crops. This makes Kerala a food-deficit state overall. Much of the distribution of food takes place via imports from other parts of India. In addition to rice, coconut, and vegetable production, Kerala grows a number of cash crops such as spices, rubber, and tea. These cash crops are sold by private businesses, cooperatives, or government agencies on national and international markets to help pay for the imported food grains. The grains, in turn, are distributed through private markets and a network of government programs including school and nursery lunches, special feeding centers, and ration or "fair price" shops.

School and Nursery Lunches

One way to help the poor get more food is by feeding their children at school. School feeding programs originated in the southern districts of Travancore and Cochin in the 1940s.30 The expansion of the program to all students was proposed in 1957-1959 during what people in Kerala call the first Communist Ministry. (We shall say more about this elected Communist party government later.) The expansion was realized in 1961 with the assistance of Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere (CARE) which provided most of the foodstuffs until just a few years ago. The program is now entirely funded by the state government.31

Until June 1987 the program offered all students in standard (grades) one to four a hot lunch each day. Eligibility requirement are not employed. In the early 1970s, about 75 percent of al students aged six to ten were actually being fed (with the assumption being that the remaining 25 percent ate lunch at home). By 1987 over 2 million children were receiving the meals, which were designed to provide about 410 calories and 15 grams of protein. In June of 1987 the newly elected Left Democratic Front government expanded the program to cover grades five to seven, raising the number of beneficiaries statewide to 3 million.32

In addition to the school lunch program, many Kerala women and their infants can receive one free meal each day at local village nurseries run by women's associations with government funds. In the early 1970s, more than 150,000 women and infants were being fed in these centers daily. By 1988, 9,227 feeding centers were serving 265,000 women and infants.33

The Ration Shops

Public distribution of food via ration shops or fair price shops is Kerala's most extensive mechanism for insuring adequate nutrition to the poor. Ration shops were established in Kerala during the First World War, but came to cover large numbers of people in the state only after 1964, when food shortages throughout India caused the Kerala government to purchase rice and wheat to make sure enough was available. Kerala's 20 year lead in implementing ration shops has been followed only slowly, with four other states (Tamil Nadu, Gujarat' Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka) extending the shops to rural areas by the 1980s. In the remaining 17 Indian states, the shops are generally accessible only to people in urban areas.34

Food rationing was not simply the gift of an enlightened administration, however. It was primarily the outcome of decades of struggle by workers and tenant farmers to control the landlords and other elite forces exploiting them. During the Indian independence movement, for example, at a high point of local struggle in 1946, the Kerala peasants' front in Malabar organized a campaign against food hoarding and black-marketing. The campaign included forcible prevention of the movement of grain from the area so it could be kept in local ration shops. Inspired in part by the famous Telangana uprising in the Andhra Pradesh region of India, in 1948 Malabar peasants forced landlords to sell their surplus grain at a fair price. The intensity of these struggles can be measured by the fact that many activists were killed, including twenty-two in a single slaughter inside a prison in 1950. Although these struggles involved other demands such as land reform, the idea of a nonexploitative price for food became a mass popular demand to which successive Kerala governments have had to respond.35

Since the large-scale expansion of the program in 1964, Kerala's fair price shops have generally been considered the most extensive and effective in India. We can see from table 3 that 99 percent of Kerala's villages are served by a shop within two kilometers as compared with only 35 percent of India's villages generally. By the 1970s, Kerala's shops accounted for 15 to 16 percent of total calorie intake and 19 to 20 percent of total protein intake in the state.36

As of 1988,4.8 million household ration cards had been issued for purchasing price-controlled rice, wheat, sugar, palm oil, and kerosene in 12,828 shops. In addition, 171 Maveli stores, named for an ancient king, sell an even broader range of products at controlled prices. Both ration and Maveli shops offer special additional goods during festivals like Onam, the Kerala harvest and New Year celebration.37 Onam takes place in late August or early September, in the Malayalam month of Chingam, following the major monsoon harvest. Maveli's name is another word for Mahabali, which means great sacrifice in Malayalam. It comes from a Kerala folk tale about an ancient king who led his people with great justice and social equality. So happy were they that the Hindu god Vishnu became jealous. He incarnated himself and tricked the good king into being sent to the underworld. But before giving in, Mahabali asked for the right to visit his people once each year. In preparation for the visit, people make floral designs in their house compounds. Parades, boat races, and other sportive events embellish the occasion. The Maveli stores evoke the symbolism of fairness and equality of the Onam tale.38

On the average, each ration shop is within two kilometers of the 360 households it serves. Some stores are cooperatives, but most are owned by private businesses that receive a fixed profit on their operations.39

In 1961-1962 fair price shops accounted for only 13 percent of the cereals consumed. By 1971-1972 they accounted for 37 percent, with the poorest 30 percent of the population getting two-thirds of its rice and wheat from them.40 It can thus be seen that the ration shops primarily serve low-income groups. This comes from the structure of the ration system, in which access to the shops is divided according to two basic principles.

First, all households are provided with some palm oil, kerosene, wheat, sugar, and special offers at holidays. Kerosene, however, is limited according to whether the household has an electrical connection. Although all of Kerala's villages have electricity, only a portion of households can afford to make use of electricity.

Second, access to controlled prices for rice depends on the amount of rice land owned. A formula grants the full ration so households with less than one-half acre, a one-third ration to those with between one-half and two acres, and no food ration to those with more than two acres. This policy focuses the ration shop rice subsidy on what are believed to be the poorest households. Since any high-income family is likely to invest part of its wealth in rice land, the land criterion effectively means a progressive redistribution of the rice subsidy to the poorest households.

How Well Nourished Are Kerala's People?

Have Kerala's extensive and widely praised food distribution programs made any measurable difference in the food intake of ordinary people? Seen in the all-India context, this question is of great importance. India is recognized as having one of the world's greatest hunger problems. In the period 1980-1986, for example, it has been estimated that 33 percent of the nation's children under five years of age suffered mild to moderate malnutrition while 5 percent experienced severe malnutrition.41

Are things getting any better? While the country imported more than 5 million tons of cereals in 1974 and received in addition almost 1.6 million tons in food aid, by 1986 no imports were recorded and only 257,000 tons of food aid came in. India thus became officially self-sufficient in basic food production. Despite this significant accomplishment, between 1965 and 1985 the daily calorie supply per capita increased from 2,100 to only 2,126, leaving the population on the average still about 10 to 15 percent below the 2,400 calorie recommended minimum. With high levels of inequality throughout most of India, it is likely that substantial malnutrition continues. According to one recent estimate, 85 percent of all Indian children under five are undernourished.42

Suspicions abound among researchers about the reliability of calorie counts. For Kerala, studies before the 1970s seemed to indicate a severe shortfall, with only about 1,600 calories per person per day. Economists at Kerala's Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Trivandrum were suspicious of this figure. The state's high life expectancy and low infant mortality rates seemed implausible at such low food levels. Revised research methods indicated that cassava and coconuts-major components of Kerala's food supply-were not being counted in the national food surveys. When these were added, a new figure of over 2,300 calories per person per day was obtained, indicating that Kerala's people are receiving approximately minimum calorie requirements.43

Although research in the 1970s suggested serious calorie shortages in Kerala,44 studies in the early 1980s show the state's people receiving 2,203 calories per person per day against an all-India average of 2,243. More detailed analysis indicates only negligible protein deficiency in Kerala as compared to 2 percent to 6.5 percent in the nearby state of Andhra Pradesh and up to 8.6 percent in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Iron deficiency in Kerala ranged from 4.5 percent to 17.3 percent, while in Andhra Pradesh it was from 2.5 to 27.8 percent and from 26 percent to 57 percent in Uttar Pradesh.45 These data support the view that nutrition in Kerala is equal or superior to that of other parts of India.

One way around the calorie-measurement problem is to examine the effects of nutrition on the size of people. Because young children are generally the group most at risk and because malnutrition shows up most clearly in their growth patterns, studies on height and weight of children in the first five or ten years of life have become a commonly accepted method of indicating people's food consumption. Even here, however, various major methodological debates continue, such as which measurements and which standards should be used to indicate which degrees and kinds of malnutrition.46

Without entering into this complicated argument, we can consider the position of children in Kerala as compared to all-India averages (see tables 5 and 6). These comparisons are based on extensive studies done by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in the period 1956-1965 before the ration shops became widespread.

In addition to the Kerala and all-India figures, we also present data from one village in Kerala designated VPM, which was studied in 1983-1984. The numbers of children measured were as large as the entire Kerala sample from the ICMR study, thus they may give an approximate idea of more recent sizes of Kerala children.

TABLE 5: Height and Weight of Boys


Height (cms)a

Weight (kgs)b

Age

VPM Village
(1983)

Kerala (1965)

India (1965)

VPM Village (1983)

Kerala (1965)

India
(1965)

1

78.9

75.6

73.9

8.9

8.9

8.4

2

85.1

82.9

81.6

10.9

10.5

10.1

3

92.0

83.3

88.8

12.5

12.0

11.8

4

98.2

97.2

96.0

13.9

13.7

13.5

5

104

102.1

102.1

14.9

14.7

14.8

6

109.8

106.8

108.5

15.9

15.7

16.3

7

115.7

113.2

113.9

18.0

17.6

18.0

8

119.5

117.1

119.3

20.0

18.9

19.7

9

125.0

119.9

123.7

21.0

19.8

21.5

10

na

125.4

124.4

na

21.7

23.5

SOURCES: ICMR 1972: tables 4,6,29,30; Scott and Mathew 1985:75.

NOTE: Averages can be somewhat misleading. A more appropriate form of presentation would be as standardized (z) scores, but the ICMR data are presented as averages, thus this is the only practical means for making a comparison. Further nutrritonal and growth data on Kerala appear in Panikar and Soman 1984. For a technical paper on height and weight of Kerala children, see Franke 1988.

(a) cms=Centimeters (1 cm=0.4 inches)
(b) kgs=kilograms (1 kg=2.2 lbs.)
na Notavailable

TABLE 6: Height and Waight of Girls


Height (cms)a

Weight (kgs)b

Age

VPM Village (1983)

Kerala (1965)

India (1965)

VPM Village (1983)

Kerala (1965)

India (1965)

1

76.8

74.0

72.5

8.5

8.1

7.8

2

83.0

81.5

80.1

10.2

9.8

9.6

3

90.9

86.9

87.2

11.9

11.1

11.2

4

96.8

95.2

94.5

l2.9

13.0

l2.9

5

102.6

100.0

101.4

14.5 1

3.9

14.5

6

109.5

106.4

107.4

15.9

15.5

16.0

7

113.3

111.9

112.8

17.5

17.2

17.6

8

118.1

116.7

118.2

18.5

19.1

19.4

9

122.6

119.6

122.9

21.0

19.8

21.3

10

na

125.0

128.4

na

22.0

23.6

SOURCES: See Table 5 for sources and notes.

Although the figures should be taken cautiously, they seem to indicate improvement and may show what the ration shops have achieved.

What can we tell from this mass of statistics? Simply this: Kerala's children do slightly better than their counterparts in the rest of India in the first five years of life, then slip a bit towards age ten. From these data, there do not appear to be important differences in the patterns of girls and boys-at least in terms of Kerala versus the rest of India. It should be kept in mind that all these figures are well below the averages for developed countries. Height and weight data for 1980 collected by the Indian National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau showed that "significant progress in reducing the incidence of severe malnutrition" was made only in two states: Kerala and West Bengal.47

What can we conclude from the mixed and somewhat contradictory evidence on nutrition? The ICMR study found that the height and weight of children in India was significantly influenced by income. Therefore, when we consider the fact that incomes in Kerala are below those of most of the country, the most plausible conclusion is that Kerala provides nutrition to its population at least equal to and perhaps slightly better than that of the rest of India, despite Kerala's much lower income per capita. The most likely reason for this is the efficient functioning of school and nursery lunches and the fair price shops. At the same time, we must note that Kerala's children remain far below international standards in height and weight, meaning either that some genetic factor accounts for their small size or that there is still a long way to go in providing truly adequate nutrition.

Additional questions and insights come from a further set of apparently contradictory evidence. Research by the National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau in the mid-1970s showed that of ten Indian states, Kerala had the lowest average calorie intake and supposedly the highest percentage of households with protein-calorie deficiency. Yet among preschool children, Kerala ranked second best of the ten states in height and weight measurements. Such findings suggest at least two forces at work. First, as we stated above, Kerala's people may be getting significantly more food than the nutrition surveys indicated. Second, Kerala's people may get more benefit from the foods they do eat because of the state's better health conditions and care. People who are sick less often do not have as many bouts of weight loss, and those who do get sick can return to normal food intake more quickly if they get immediate and adequate health care.48 This point leads us to the topic of health and health care in Kerala.