Stay hungry, stay foolish

India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry — about 230 million people — according to the World Food Programme. About half of the country’s children are malnourished, a record poorer than the world’s poorest area, sub-Saharan Africa [1].

Hardly a day went by during the past month, in which we didn’t think of food. And no, it wasn’t because we couldn’t get our minds off of planning the first meal we would have at the end of our experiment. Rather, it was because, food was the largest component of our budget at both Rs. 100/day (50%) and Rs. 32/day (68%). We realized painfully through our hunger and massive sugar highs and lows, that you need sufficient calories and you need them balanced too. Lack of enough calories and essential nutrients can drive your brains into a tailspin with short term reactions including overeating into your food budget or getting angry and frustrated at friends (yeap. been there, done that this month). What sustained hunger can mean for the productivity and health of a nation and its economy should be obvious. For us specifically, these other effects aside,  hunger could have easily destabilized our budget, had we not planned for this slice of our expenditure properly during the past month. Moreover, both of us were concerned about nutrition and fitness, and paid close attention to what we ate on a regular basis even before the start of the experiment. Hence, we wanted to mirror our nutrition profile from before Rs. 100/day as closely as possible instead of simply trying to load up on calories within our financial constraints.

A key ingredient we’ve always focused on is protein, which, for us, was predominantly made up of animal products. If you searched online for the ideal distribution of carbohydrates-fats-proteins, you’d find suggestions for 40-30-30, 50-30-20, etc.  Even conservative estimates put “having 1g of protein for each kg in your body” targets. Also, the higher the level of physical activity, the higher the number of calories needed and larger the share of dietary protein. Both of us need more than 2200 calories/day, if we are to maintain our weight, given the fact that we were involved in a variety of activities – running, badminton, calisthenics – for more than an hour on most days. We found that it was impossible to get to our daily caloric requirement without sacrificing on the recommended nutrient distribution. The only way to get to the magic number was to eat more rice or roti. And since we didn’t go for the unbalanced diet option while @ Rs. 100/day, we ended up shedding 5.5 kg and 2kg each during the 3 weeks. (Our blood sugar dropped by ~15% and cholesterol dropped by ~30% to almost unhealthy levels!)

As we delved into nutrition planning, we realized that there is no such thing as a cheap source of protein, even at Rs. 100/day. See table below for a list of foods we consumed, their costs, and nutrition information.

Nutritional breakdown of key cereals, pulses

Clearly, soy provides the most protein for the buck. And, we – as some of you are probably now – were also surprised to find the relatively low percentage of protein in dal. Fortunately, open soy @Rs 40/kg wasn’t much more expensive than dal in Bangalore (Let’s not get into what soy does to your apetite without a generous helping of spices). So, we did load up on it significantly. Of course, soy was beyond our means in Kerala where the market price for it was higher and, well, dal itself was a luxury

So, how did we end up doing on having a balanced meal? Here are a few charts from both Rs. 100/day and Rs. 32/day:

Costs @ Rs. 100/day. Total Rs. 47.96

Costs @Rs. 32/day. Total: Rs. 18.01

Calorie distribution @ Rs. 100/day . Calories consumed: 1979

Calorie distribution @ Rs. 32/day. Calories consumed: 1418

Of course, we couldn’t be bothered to lead a balanced diet at Rs. 32/day. Even so, we shed another 1kg and 0.5 kg each in that “starvation week”. It was because there is no way to make it to even 2000 calories in Rs. 17 (the food component of the Rs. 32 budget), unless you only eat rice/rotis.

Also, as you can clearly see, the nutritional intake (protein especially) is nowhere close to what we need. If it is not sufficient for us, it clearly doesn’t satisfy the requirements of someone who does hard labor with greater caloric needs. We think this explains why most hard working manual laborers are not burly musclemen, but bone thin workers. As we see it, they likely eat carbs heavy meals and burn through them everyday. Muscle development and regeneration rates are likely low given this low protein diet. What does this mean for the laborers in the long term? They likely are affected by early arthritis and other physiological disorders as their bones take the brunt of the impact – leading possibly to early retirement.

What has the Indian government done to provide enough nutrition to its citizens? Create the world’s largest food distribution system called “Public Distribution System”[2]. under which the government distributes rice, wheat, sugar and kerosene. Some state governments add pulses and oil to this, but not all. How much calories does one get if only reliant on PDS system? The food allocation prescribed centrally under PDS or proposed in the National Food Security Act translates to 35 kg per family or 7 kg per person of food grains ,which is around 230 g of grains per day per person assuming household size of 5. Let’s further assume that the 2 adults each eat 300g of foodgrain a day (more than 50% greater than 3 kids). Now, this means between 1,110 and 1,000 total calories and between 20g (8% of total calories) and 40g (15% of total calories) of proteins – depending on whether you use rice or wheat, respectively – which is low for a person weighing ~70kg. Adding 50g of soybean to this could push the protein to 48g and 66g respectively, which is closer to the minimum healthy levels of 57g (0.8g per kg of body weight or ~20% of daily calories intake). Could the government not centrally plan to distribute high protein supplements or soy along with the diet? (Note: While we didn’t analyze our micronutrient and vitamin intakes as much as we would’ve liked to, it is our intuition that the reason half our children are malnourished is not just from the fact that they don’t receive enough calories, but also the right kind of calories and nutrients)

So, what about survival at Rs. 32/day? Well unless you want a malnourished, hungry, underproductive worker class, its time to raise that number for sure! Maybe Steve Jobs was trying to reach out to our planning commission literally when he said “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Food for thought?


16 Responses to “Stay hungry, stay foolish”

  1. I saw your story on NDTV. I have just moved to Canada from India and I can absolutely understand the plight of the common man in India. Rs.32 a day is like asking a person to give up on everything he/she dreams of or even thinks of and just concentrate on seeing the sunset alive. It is really sad that it has come to this. The other side of the coin is shining with Rs 700 crore parks and the fast tracks of F1, not to mention the money that is pocketed in such projects. The disparity is huge and and it is really appalling to see the contrast.
    I just hope some sense gets into the ‘brilliant’ ministers who decided upon this number. All the best with your undertaking.

    PS: I was also surprised on seeing just 1 comment here. Awareness sure lacks.

  2. This is indeed so insightful and so obvious in a way ! Thanks for sharing !

  3. First of all congratulations for making people like us, who have the luxury of typing on this blog, to realize what the value of money is. Its incredibly impossible to understand the value to Rs.32 when we end up buying Rs.200 popcorn at a movie. I hope your effort reaches the ears of our ministers. As much as we ridicule them we need them.
    Thank you and keep up the Great Work !!

  4. The awareness must spread. Like service tax which is more than 12% on a luxurious meal, there must poverty tax to eliminate poverty. The idea that everyone must be given opportunity to realize their dream must be reality. Good job people..

  5. There seems to be no change.
    I’m not sure what the ‘brilliant’ analysts are thinking here.

  6. After reading such figures published by the indian government makes your blood boil thinking what all shit they can say. with crores if scam being exposed now and then, can not they increase the daily ration allowances and make the process much more transparent. i think everyone feels the same. Time is to act together, as one of a friend rightly said that we do not realize what luxury we are living in dining at expensive lounges, popcorns in movie hall. if we can skip just an outing in a month thats not
    going to leave a dent in our life but can mend the same for others for a month. Just look around yourself, you will find plenty whom you can offer an helping hand either temporarily or permanetly.

  7. The whole exercise seems to be focussed on food consumptuon alone, where are the other essential aspects or bare necessities like cloths, shelther, healthcare, transportation,education. I have not read on what constitutes the 32Rs that govt has defined as poverty line but i assume it covers all aspects of living.

    • Hi Sasidharan, Rs. 32 does include other necessities besides food. But in government calculations (and in our experience), an overwhelming majority of 32 is spent on food. Hence, us focusing on this aspect

  8. What about the BPL benefits that come with the Rs. 32 per day card? Supposed free medical care, subsidised food and the like? Their availability and access to them?

  9. When I was doing engineering in Nanded 1992 – 1995, I lived on less than Rs. 17 per day. My room rent (didn’t live in the campus hostel) was Rs. 125 per month (attached toilet, room shared with another student) and private mess bill was Rs. 350 per month. Never had a lifestyle like that since; Badminton in indoor wooden floored court, kayaking, rowing and swimming at the Vishnupuri barrage, (where our college had a boat club), got Malaria twice, had myself treated at the government hospital, college had a great library, spent a lot of time at our computer lab dabbling with “C”. (No internet then of course) (Poverty wasn’t the reason for the above, the lifestyle that I choose required only so much money)

    College cost Rs. 14 per day, but my college was run by the government and the fees didn’t reflect the cost of facilities it provided.

    Never ate out, (except two meals at the mess). Lived on one meal a day for an entire semester (hated the hostel mess, and college timings were odd during that semester), skipped the afternoon mean, was very busy.

    Having written this, I think Rs. 32 per day is a shameless cruel joke. Instead of keeping it monetary, the government should describe people as poor who don’t get a certain calories per day, don’t have access to employment, health care, education, have a disadvantaged social status, don’t have a certain standard of housing, access to water and sanitation, don’t have access to government programmes etc.

    Since you have access to M. S. Ahluvalia, you could discuss the above. Apart from the Rs. 32 per day thing, there is a complex and detailed point system which that goes in the defining a BPL status. (See Wikipedia article, one which I created:

  10. It’s going to be finish of mine day, however before finish I am reading this fantastic article to increase my know-how.

  11. Hello!,
    Im able from bangalore.i recntly came here fr studies and nw im leavin on 100 a day..aftr i saw ur blog i undrstud it was a big deal .(im frm an average family)
    I wud like to share my food chart.
    Brkfast 2 dosa-25rs,lunch-meal frm canteen-30,dinner -2dosa and 2 boiled eggs
    Total-87rs..i dnt think the food i mntioned r not enough..
    But i salute u in case of 32rs perday!…
    Keeping aside the fact tht u guys graduatedfrm mit!.still u tried to study poor peoples life..hats off


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